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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 Lincoln’s life, particularly his possible illegitimacy and his troubled marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln.

Lamon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln also fell far short of the kind of biography Herndon thought Lincoln deserved, and when Herndon put his own life back together in the 1880s he teamed up with a younger colleague, Jesse W. Weik, to do additional research and finally to produce Herndon’s Lincoln in 1889. After Herndon’s death in 1891, Weik retained ownership of Herndon’s research materials and refused to give other scholars access to them. Weik wrote The Real Lincoln and published it in 1922. He then turned the documents over to Albert J. Beveridge, who had written a favorable review of Weik’s book. Beveridge’s subsequent unfinished biography of Lincoln still stands today as the fullest treatment of Lincoln’s early life.

After the deaths of Beveridge and Weik in 1927 and 1929, a consortium of manuscript dealers bought what had become known as the Herndon-Weik Collection. The Library of Congress finally acquired the collection in 1941 and subsequently microfilmed it. But Herndon’s handwriting was nearly illegible, and the arrangement and indexing of the material was so poorly done and the quality of the microfilming so wretched, that the Herndon-Weik Collection at the Library of Congress remained almost as inaccessible to most historians as it had been before 1941.

Until now, that is. Douglas L. Wilson and his co-editor Rodney O. Davis, along with a small army of research assistants and librarians, have done a service of inestimable value to historians by the complete, accurately transcribed, indexed, and annotated edition of the written accounts of Herndon’s interviews with 264 people that are collected in Herndon’s Informants. One can scarcely imagine the countless hours of eye-straining, nerve-agitating, mind-challenging labor necessary to produce this book. It is a monumental achievement of scholarship. That is true not simply because of the editorial skill and effort required to complete it, but mainly because this material is the basis for most of what we know about the first half of Lincoln’s life. Without Herndon’s underappreciated efforts, Lincoln scholarship would be immensely poorer. And without the feat of Wilson and Davis, historians and biographers in the future would also be much the poorer.

Yet there has been something of a Catch-22 about the reputation of Herndon and of the source materials he assembled. On the one hand, Lincoln biographers have been dependent on it, either directly or indirectly through Herndon’s Lincoln. On the other, many of these same biographers have challenged Herndon’s credibility and questioned the authenticity of much of the evidence he collected—even as they used it. This is the anomalous state of affairs that Douglas Wilson undertook to revise in Honor’s Voice and in several of the essays in Lin-coln Before Washington. Currently the Saunders Director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, Wilson was formerly a professor of English at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois (site of one of the Lincoln–Douglas debates), where for several years he taught a course on Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln with Professor Rodney O. Davis of the Department of History. While teaching this course he conceived the idea of compiling the three volumes under review.

Wilson became fascinated by the contrasts between the education of Thomas Jefferson and that of Abraham Lincoln. He wanted to understand how two of the greatest statesmen and writers in American history, whose Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address have shaped and defined the nation’s ideals, emerged from such different backgrounds. “Any search for information on Lincoln’s formative years,” writes Wilson in the Preface of Lincoln Before Washington, “leads inevitably to the letters and interviews collected by his law partner,” which are “unlike anything available for the study of Jefferson or of virtually anyone else before the twentieth century.”

Once he started this project, Wilson was hooked. Seven of the nine essays in Lincoln Before Washington chronicle work on the Herndon materials and offer important new insights on a number of controversial issues in Lincoln scholarship. The foremost among these is what might be termed the Ann Rutledge Question. When Herndon began his research, he was startled to hear from several of his informants who had known Lincoln in New Salem (where he lived from 1831 to 1837) that Lincoln had fallen in love with the prettiest young woman in town and had become engaged to her in 1835. When Ann Rutledge died of “brain fever” (probably typhoid) in August of that year, Lincoln fell into such a deep depression that friends feared he might take his own life.

Herndon had not previously heard of Ann Rutledge, but once he learned about her he avidly pursued additional reminiscences from informants. In 1866 Herndon devoted one of his lectures to the Ann Rutledge story. He harmed his own credibility and gravely offended Lincoln’s widow, Mary, and their son Robert by speculating well beyond the evidence he had gathered from his informants. Ann Rutledge was Lincoln’s only true love, said Herndon; his depression following her death was the origin of Lincoln’s recurrent bouts of “melancholia” or “hypo” (for hypochondria, a contemporary medical term for depression); Lincoln later married Mary Todd, after breaking their initial engagement, only because he felt bound to honor that engagement, which trapped him in a loveless and joyless marriage.

Herndon had a hidden purpose in the interpretation he gave the Ann Rutledge story. He had never liked Mary Lincoln, who reciprocated the sentiment. Herndon’s portrait of the Lincolns’ marriage has echoed down the years, despite challenges by Mary Lincoln’s biographers, and still influences serious scholarship as well as popular images of Abraham and Mary Lincoln.1 The Ann Rutledge story caught the popular fancy and took on so many layers of myth that the truth is difficult to determine. It did not help matters that Carl Sandburg’s widely read biography of Lincoln invented “mawkish scenes and trembling soliloquies” in its treatment of Lincoln and Rutledge, or that the Atlantic Monthly published in 1928 and 1929 a series of supposed love letters from Abraham to Ann (whose authenticity was endorsed by Sandburg) which turned out to be forgeries. The scholarly backlash against this sentimentalized love affair caused serious Lincoln biographers to doubt or deny the Ann Rutledge story in its entirety, a position that dominated Lincoln studies from the 1930s to the 1990s. Herndon’s reputation suffered from this backlash, for if he and his informants were wrong about Ann Rutledge, how could their recollections about other aspects of Lincoln’s early life be trusted?

Herndon’s critics perhaps had concealed motives of their own. The principal challenge to Herndon’s credibility came from James G. Randall, the foremost Lincoln scholar of his time (between the 1930s and 1950s). Randall’s wife Ruth Painter Randall wrote a sympathetic biography of Mary Lincoln suggesting that the Lincolns had a loving and fulfilling marriage. Randall’s brightest student, David Donald, wrote a biography of Herndon that portrayed him in an unflattering light. And one of Donald’s students, Jean H. Baker, has written a biography of Mary Lincoln that likewise has little good to say of Herndon.2

When it comes to such controversies, the scholarly pendulum has a way of swinging from one side to the other. During the 1990s the pendulum has been swinging back in Herndon’s favor, in large part thanks to the scrupulous and careful analysis of the Herndon materials by Douglas Wilson. His precise prose should convince the fair-minded reader of his three volumes, as Wilson’s research gradually convinced him, “that in some important respects the great Lincoln scholars of this century have been wrong about Herndon and his informant testimony, that this judgment has prejudiced their constituency unduly against Herndon, and that Herndon’s neglected materials still have new and unexpected things to tell us about Lincoln’s prepresidential life.”

Because the Ann Rutledge question became a touchstone of Herndon’s reliability, Wilson devotes a great deal of attention to it. His main target of criticism is James G. Randall. In a famous appendix to his magisterial Lincoln the President, “Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence,” Randall had cited what he considered to be conflicting stories, faulty memory, and distortions by Herndon’s informants plus leading questions from Herndon to discredit the story of Lincoln’s love for Ann and his depression after her death. For Randall, these faults called all of Herndon’s evidence into question. “The historian must use reminiscence, but he must do so critically,” wrote Randall.

A careful writer will check it with known facts. Contradictory reminiscences leave doubt as to what is to be believed; unsupported memories are in themselves insufficient as proof; statements induced under suggestion, or psychological stimulus, as were some of the stories about Lincoln and Ann, call especially for careful appraisal…. When faulty memories are admitted the resulting product becomes something other than history.3

This is sound advice for historians and biographers. Wilson endorses every one of its tenets. But he then proceeds, in a tour de force of textual analysis, to convict Randall of violating his own rules and to defend Herndon from the charges made by Randall. Herndon, Wilson writes, was careful to avoid imposing his views on his correspondents and interviewees. Herndon was surprised and skeptical of the Ann Rutledge stories at first, but finally was convinced by overwhelming testimony. Herndon did in fact sift and balance contradictory or dubious testimony and ask probing questions to try to reconcile conflicting evidence and arrive at the most plausible version of the facts. And for many important details of Lincoln’s early life, there are no “known facts”—that is, contemporary documented evidence—against which to test the admittedly fallible memories of informants. Herndon’s evidence is all we have, and Wilson deftly demonstrates that Randall himself, as well as other historians critical of Herndon,

draws extensively on Herndon’s informants and depends on them for the documentation of Lincoln’s personal and political background. There he does not confine himself to testimony that can be checked with contemporary sources or “known facts,” nor does he balk at accepting as historical incidents about which evidence is conflicting.

Of twenty-four informants who offered testimony on Lincoln and Ann Rutledge—most of whom knew both of them—twenty-two said that Lincoln loved or courted Ann, two offered no opinion, and none dis-puted the existence of the relationship. Seventeen of the twenty-four stated that Lincoln grieved at her death, and most of these testified to his serious, almost suicidal depression; the other seven offered no opinion. Those informants who knew Lincoln and Rutledge best, and who had good reputations for truthfulness and lack of bias, testified most strongly to the reality of the relationship. According to the critical criteria that Wilson establishes for judging the reliability of long-after-the-fact oral history evidence, Lincoln did love Ann Rutledge and did grieve excessively at her death. This does not mean, however, that the extreme conclusions Herndon drew from the story were right—that Lincoln never loved another woman, that his marriage was a constant hell, or that Rutledge’s death was the source of his subsequent tendency toward melancholia.

Why is all of this important? From his close examination of the Ann Rutledge evidence, Wilson derived a set of criteria for evaluating the accuracy and value of Herndon’s research for an understanding of key events in Lincoln’s life from 1831 to 1842, which helped to form his character. These criteria would be familiar to anyone who has taken an interest in American criminal investigation and law. They include ascertaining the preponderance of evidence with respect to a given claim, and addressing the specificity of the testimony, the likelihood of its truth as measured by comparison with other evidence, the reputation and known prejudices of the informant, and whether the testimony is firsthand or hearsay. As an experienced trial lawyer, Herndon often cross-examined his informants. And Wilson unravels the tangled evidence about several puzzling or controversial events in Lincoln’s life in a manner similar to that of a shrewd detective.

Honor’s Voice contains many revealing nuggets of information. It offers new insights on Lincoln’s famous wrestling match with Jack Armstrong in 1831, in which Lincoln established his masculine credentials of physical courage, strength, good humor, and self-assurance, qualities that won him friends and influence in his new home at New Salem. Wilson analyzes Lincoln’s awkward relations with women, which were punctuated by a clumsy and ill-fated courtship of Mary Owens and a brief unrequited infatuation with Matilda Edwards as well as Lincoln’s love for Ann Rutledge and his eventual marriage to Mary Todd. Wilson also contributes new information about the youthful Lincoln’s fondness for the free-thinking doctrines of Thomas Paine and his skepticism about many tenets of the Christian faith.

In Honor’s Voice, Wilson also discusses Lincoln’s authorship of anonymous or pseudonymous newspaper articles that slashed his political opponents, his fondness for William Shakespeare and Robert Burns, and what really happened on “that fatal first of Jany. ‘41.”—or more precisely, what did not happen, for the available evidence does not definitively tell us what Lincoln meant by these words written in a letter to his best friend Joshua Speed in March 1842. Herndon’s conclusion that they referred to Lincoln’s failure to show up for his scheduled wedding to Mary Todd on that date has long since been discredited. Nor can these words refer to the date of breaking the engagement to Mary, which had occurred a month or more earlier and contributed to Lincoln’s prolonged bout of “hypo” during the winter of 1840–1841. In a dazzling analysis of probabilities, Wilson speculates that the phrase may have referred to some important event not in Lincoln’s life but in Speed’s—perhaps his decision to move from Springfield back to Kentucky—or to Speed’s and Lincoln’s rivalry for the affection of the apparently bewitching Matilda Edwards.

These incidents are all relevant to the two main themes of Honor’s Voice, which can be summarized in two words: Ambition and Honor. From his teenage years onward, Lincoln pursued his own program of reading, study, and self-improvement in a relentless quest for upward mobility from farm laborer to successful lawyer. His ambition, as Herndon later said, “was a little engine that knew no rest.”4 It was not an ambition for wealth; Lincoln was indifferent, almost careless, about money. It was an ambition for success, for distinction in his profession and in politics. During the depths of his depression in early 1841, Lincoln told Joshua Speed that he was “more than willing to die” except “that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.”

The most brilliant sections of Honor’s Voice consist of the intricate analyses of the relationships among Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd, the broken engagement, his depression, a near-duel with James Shields, and his marriage in 1842. Lincoln’s practice of writing anonymous or pseudonymous newspaper articles attacking political opponents was not at all unusual for the times. But Lincoln’s well-honed talent for ridicule and satire gave his articles a special power to “skin” their victims. In 1842 Lincoln, by then a prominent Whig, wrote such an arti-cle satirizing the Democratic state auditor James Shields. The incensed Shields discovered Lincoln’s authorship and challenged him to a duel. Lincoln could not refuse and maintain his honor, but just before the duel was to take place, friends of both men interceded and persuaded Shields to accept the following statement by Lincoln in lieu of an apology: “I wrote that [article], wholly for political effect. I had no intention of injuring your personal or private character, or standing as a man or a gentleman…and had I anticipated such an effect I would have foreborne to write it.”

This statement represented a transformation in Lincoln’s sense of manliness and honor; he recognized that an honorable man could not hide behind anonymity or politics in his attacks on the integrity or character of another; he must accept responsibility for his words and actions. As a result of this experience, writes Wilson, “Lincoln may, for the first time, have understood ‘honor’ and honorable behavior as all-important, as necessary, as a matter of life and death.”

What made this event even more important was its relation to Lincoln’s marriage. Lincoln’s “hypo” during the winter of 1840–1841 was probably the result of profound guilt feelings about the wounds he had inflicted on Mary Todd when he sought release from their initial engagement (which she granted). For more than a year, as Lincoln later wrote to Joshua Speed, he could have no happiness because of “the never-absent idea, that there is one still unhappy whom I have contributed to make so. That still kills my soul. I can not but reproach myself, for even wishing to be happy while she is otherwise.” Lincoln felt dishonored by what he came to see as a betrayal of trust toward Mary. He also believed that he had lost the “ability to keep my resolves when they are made,” a defect he regarded as fatal to his hopes for success and distinction.

The Shields imbroglio proved to be a catalyst for resolution of these doubts and convictions of dishonor. Lincoln’s article ridiculing Shields was one of three published in the Illinois press; Mary Todd probably wrote one of the others (far gentler in its satire than Lincoln’s). This affair brought them together again, and Lincoln’s new conception of honor in the settlement of the quarrel with Shields seems to have prompted a similar determination to dissolve his crippling guilt toward Mary by marrying her. In so doing, he regained his confidence in “my ability to keep my resolves” and, in Wilson’s words, “affirmed something important in his identity.”

The marrried life of the Lincolns—its happiness and unhappiness, and whether Mary was a shrew who made Lincoln’s life a hell—remains a matter of dispute among biographers. But the marriage did produce four sons, the first one born precisely nine months after the wedding. And “the debilitating episodes of the ‘hypo’ did not recur.” Most important, perhaps, “Lincoln became known for his resolution.” Once he made a decision, he stuck with it—a matter of no small importance when the issues became Union or Disunion, Victory or Defeat, Slavery or Freedom. As Lincoln once said to prominent political leaders who urged him to back away from the Emancipation Proclamation or face possible defeat for reelection in 1864: “The promise, being made, must be kept.”5 The man who had contemplated suicide at the age of thirty-one but drew back because he “had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived” eventually caused the whole world to remember that he had.

  1. 1

    See especially Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (University of Illinois Press, 1994).

  2. 2

    James G. Randall, Lincoln the President, 4 vols., Vol. IV completed by Richard N. Current (Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1945–1955); Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Little, Brown, 1953); David Donald, Lincoln’s Herndon (Knopf, 1948); Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln (Norton, 1987).

  3. 3

    Randall, Lincoln the President, Vol. II, p. 325.

  4. 4

    Herndon’s Life of Lincoln (reprint of Herndon’s Lincoln), edited by Paul M. Angle (World Publishing Co., 1949), p. 304.

  5. 5

    Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. VII, p. 500.

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