Ward Hill Lamon has been variously characterized as a great soul whose friendship "was an asset to any man" and one who loved Abraham Lincoln and gave him his loyalty to the fullest. He has been called a man with an opinion on every subject who unfortunately lacked the diplomacy to hide it. He is simultaneously known as one than whom no one was better fitted to delineate Lincoln's character and as "an obscure man of limited abilities."[1] He owns the distinction of two books about Abraham Lincoln that were published over his name, neither of which he wrote, and another that he did write, which for good reason has never been published. Undoubtedly Lincoln's "particular friend" whose devotion to him and to his memory was total, Lamon is one whose reputation was clouded by controversy during Lincoln's administration and by the mixed motives with which he approached the task of becoming a Lincoln biographer, to say nothing of the motives of the ghostwriter who produced the 1872 volume that is the best-known production to be identified with him. In spite of all this, Lamon's involvement with Lincoln biography spanned nearly twenty years, longer if we include his posthumous volume. That involvement was comparable in length to, contemporaneous with, and closely related to that of William Herndon, John Hay, and John Nicolay.[2]

What we might call Lamon's first volume, that written by Chauncey Black and published in 1872, is of particular interest because its first three hundred or so pages were dependent on cop- Page  [End Page 21] ies of the reminiscent letters and interviews that William Herndon had been collecting from Lincoln's friends and acquaintances in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. [3] It was the first book to be based on Herndon's information. Lamon's motives were both to commemorate his friend's life and career and to capitalize on them; Black's are less clear. There is evidence of Lamon's early rather direct if abortive interest in the composition of the book, but the only sign of his own personal intervention that can be found in the work as published is in the final chapter, depicting Lincoln's inaugural journey to Washington, in which Lamon's pique against Allan Pinkerton is made manifest.[4]

Lamon's second volume, though anticipated by him and Chauncey Black, was written by Lamon alone some years after he and Black fell out. Basically covering Lincoln's presidency, the book's first chapter is, with some interpolations, the famous suppressed final chapter or chapter 21 of the 1872 book, which was probably written by Jeremiah Black, the father of the ghostwriter. That chapter deals with the Buchanan administration's actions between Lincoln's election and his inauguration, and it also contains the sort of assessment of the Republican party and of abolitionists that one would expect from such a quarter. [5] This second volume exists in manuscript at the Huntington Library, where it is likely to remain unpublished.

Lamon's third Lincoln book is the volume of reminiscences of Lincoln that was published over Lamon's name by Dorothy Lamon two years after his death, and it is as much a labor of the devotion of a daughter to her father as it is an expression of love for Page  [End Page 22] Lincoln.[6] An assemblage of anecdotes about Lincoln or stories by Lincoln, it is organized under topical chapter headings and contains some stories that were included in the manuscript second volume, tales that were published by Lamon in newspapers in the 1870s and 1880s, and even some material that appeared first in the 1872 volume. Chapter 4 of this book is another version of the suppressed chapter 21 of the 1872 volume, which is the opening chapter of the unpublished manuscript.

Much about the writing by Chauncey Black of Lamon's 1872 Lincoln biography is an oft-told tale, as are the stories of what was suppressed from that book and of Lamon and Black's later falling out over what should be finally included in it.[7] That the public and private reception of that volume was hostile is also well known; in particular, Lincoln familiars such as Isaac Arnold, Gideon Welles, Orville H. Browning, David Davis, Leonard Swett, Joshua Speed, and James H. Wickizer expressed their displeasure either to one another or directly to Lamon, and Lincoln's friend Horace White, no favorite of Lamon's since the latter's days as marshal of the District of Columbia during the Civil War, was generally considered the author of a most unfavorable review in the Chicago Tribune. [8] Robert Todd Lincoln claimed never to have read the book but that he knew certain of its contents well enough nonetheless; and he held it against Lamon, and William Herndon, to the end of his life.[9] Page  [End Page 23]

The major contention of the book's hostile critics was that it lacked both taste and decency. They quailed at the strong hint in the first chapter that Lincoln was illegitimate, though this printed version was apparently even less blunt on this score than Black's original draft had been. They resented the sneers at Thomas Lincoln, sneers that were nonetheless influential in the way that Lincoln's father would come to be popularly regarded. They were disturbed by the Lamon book's retelling of the Ann Rutledge story, already told once by Herndon in a public lecture, and by its allusions to Lincoln's marital discord. These they considered needless invasions of Lincoln's private life that were hurtful to those still living. Among other criticisms, they considered Lincoln's religion either yet another private matter that a biographer shouldn't explore, though Lamon and Black explored it, or else they were inclined to deny outright the Lamon volume's assertion of Lincoln's religious infidelity. Contention over Lincoln's religion would persist for two years after the publication of the Lamon-Black book, and it would become especially poisonous when Mary Todd Lincoln became embroiled in it.

Indeed, the aspects of the Lamon volume that critics found so objectionable were those that set it uniquely apart from the earlier more panegyric volumes that had preceded it. And many of those aspects derived both from the researches of William Herndon and from the positive influence that Herndon seems to have exerted on the actual composition of the book. One must draw a careful distinction between the information that Herndon carefully collected during his researches and the way he later employed or interpreted that information; his behavior during the writing of Lamon's Lincoln biography affords a case in point. For in a sometimes unedifying way, he egged Lamon and Black on.

Herndon initially accepted the charade that Lamon would in fact be writing his own Lincoln biography with Herndon's materials, and before the end of 1869, only three months after he had sold the copies of his letters and interviews to Lamon, Herndon was in touch with him, among other things urging him to "be bold" about Lincoln's religious infidelity. [10] Then in response to a letter from Lamon in February 1870 that asked for further explanation of some of his evidence, particularly that having to do with Lincoln's early religion and parenthood, Herndon over the next two months sent Page  [End Page 24] Lamon at least eight lengthy epistles plus three previously uncollected interviews. Here he reiterated in various ways the charge that Lincoln was a religious freethinker and fatalist who late in his Springfield years appeared to backpedal from this position for the sake of political advantage. He also urged his own then-held personal belief in Lincoln's illegitimacy on Lamon and through him Chauncey Black. On the latter score Herndon told Lamon, "If I thought Mr. Lincoln an illegitimate I would so state it," after having made it clear that that was indeed what he thought. [11] Herndon's disdain for Thomas Lincoln and for what he considered the larcenous and lecherous Hanks family is made emphatically clear in this correspondence, and this attitude was translated rather directly into the Lamon biography. [12]

Herndon also relied on his own memory in these letters, telling tales from his own experience that he had not recorded in the evidence he collected from others, in this way acting not only as investigator but as an informant himself. A notable instance was the story of the ride to Menard court during which Lincoln had told him that his mother was a bastard. Herndon also allowed that there was much more in his memory that he had not recorded during his researches in Indiana and Illinois. "I did not record many things that I knew to be true," he wrote, "for I knew I could draw on my memory if I should attempt to write the biography of Lincoln."[13]

To emphasize the unattractive and disreputable in Lincoln's early life seems to have amounted to creating a structural device for this biography, the scheme for which both Herndon and Chauncey Black arrived at independently. Herndon urged it in a letter to Lamon on March 15, 1870, saying that if he were writing the book, he "would draw a Strong contrast between what Lincoln was born and how he died." He further wrote, "L[incoln] should show his low origin and high end in bold contrast."[14] A week earlier Black had urged Page  [End Page 25] the same to Lamon, writing, "We must point mankind to the diamond glowing on the dunghill, and then to the same resplendent jewel in the future setting, of great success and brilliant achievement." Black, who freely acknowledged in this letter and elsewhere his great debt to Herndon, eventually gave no thanks to Lamon. In Black's later words to Herndon, after the volume was published, "I must, necessarily, have committed errors, having no acquaintance with local history and local characters, and having no one to assist me in the slightest degree."[15] The great misfortune to both Lamon and Black is that the second volume of the biography that they projected, which would have contrasted the diamond with the dunghill by emphasizing Lincoln's presidential accomplishments, was never written by Black. The public was thus confronted with only the product of the first half of this scheme, a book that highlights the depravity of Lincoln's origins and ends with his arrival in Washington—a project to which the popular and critical response was so negative as to preclude its being continued.[16] Though Black took fewer liberties with Herndon's evidence than Herndon would in the biography he later cowrote with Jesse Weik, he nonetheless was occasionally capable of putting his own spin on it. Where a single word change might reinforce a reader's impression of the crudity of Lincoln's early surroundings, Black could sometimes not resist the temptation. In two succeeding pages of the published work, for instance, Black misquoted a statement made to Herndon by A. Y. Ellis in such a way as to suggest Ellis's, and by association Lincoln's, vulgarity. He did this by substituting "embezzlements" where Ellis clearly meant "embellishments" in describing the way Lincoln told a story and then called the reader's attention to the apparent malapropism. And he substituted "nigger" where Ellis is clearly quoted in another story as having said "negro." [17] Furthermore, in an apparent effort to paint Lincoln as a closet Democrat, Black never lost an opportunity to claim that Lincoln's influential Indiana associate, William Jones, was a Jacksonian and that "the traces of this teaching were never totally effaced from Mr. Lincoln's mind," even though Herndon's evidence Page  [End Page 26] clearly indicates that Jones was a Clay man and a Whig. [18] Black also demonstrated a propensity to compliment Lincoln's Democratic friend John Calhoun wherever possible, even to the point of falsification, believing that Calhoun had been made a scapegoat by Stephen A. Douglas (who Black despised) during the Lecompton Constitution controversy in Kansas. [19]

Once beyond that part of Lincoln's life to which Herndon's evidence could be a guide, Black's prose was less subject to critical attack. Yet here his own partisan or personal biases could be even more avowedly expressed or implied without being fed through Herndon's filter. Of Lincoln's speech on the presidential question in the House of Representatives on July 27, 1848, Black positively sniffed, "It opens to us a mind fertile in images sufficiently rare and striking, but of somewhat questionable taste. It must have been heard in amazement by those gentlemen of the House who had never known a Hanks, or seen a New Salem." [20] Black considered Lincoln's 1852 speech eulogizing Henry Clay a weak effort; he insisted that Lincoln in fact was not a strong Clay man, having most in common with Clay an enthusiasm for the colonization of freed slaves.[21] Indeed, in considering Lincoln's early attitude toward African Americans, Chauncey Black's contribution is unique. Black's assessment of that attitude was cold and critical, and he far overstated Lincoln's indifference to the welfare of African Americans, free or slave, however much he opposed slavery on principle. Black also emphasized that it was in the interest of white men that Lincoln threw himself into the struggle to keep African Americans out of the territories. "He did not want them there either as slaves or freemen; but he wanted them less as slaves than as freemen." [22] This Page  [End Page 27] appraisal is far different from that on the same subject in the Herndon-Weik biography of Lincoln, the one with which the Lamon-Black volume is most closely comparable. Herndon and Weik barely considered Lincoln's attitude toward African Americans as a people at all.

But it is in his treatment of Stephen A. Douglas that Chauncey Black's partisan propensities become most visible in the Lamon biography. A persistent low level of anti-Whiggery and anti-Republicanism is doubtless to be expected in a book written in the nineteenth century by a Democratic activist. But intraparty matters seem most to have aroused the writer. Jeremiah Black could never forgive Douglas for attacking the Buchanan administration and dividing the Democratic party and neither, apparently, could his son. Chauncey Black depicted the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a cynical effort by Douglas to gain southern electoral votes in 1856, and he rated the repeal of the Missouri Compromise "the great error" of the Democratic party, "the one disastrous error of all its history." Similarly, Black professed to see inconsistency in Douglas's opposition to the Lecompton Constitution after his advocacy of popular sovereignty. But Black found most contemptible the Freeport Doctrine and Douglas's behavior at the Charleston convention, both calculated to put Douglas and his followers in antagonism with the rest of the Democrats.[23] Lincoln's long-standing contention with Douglas—especially after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act—is reported by Black in a deadpan fashion, but one must infer from Black's attacks on Douglas that he considered anyone who challenged the Illinois Democratic leader, even a Republican like Abraham Lincoln, to be worthy of grudging admiration.

Fifty years ago Benjamin Thomas said of Lamon's biography, it was "a mine of information which must be used cautiously—which is to say that Herndon's valuable but not altogether reliable material was maltreated by Chauncey Black." [24] This is a blanket indictment, and in spite of what I have said up to now, as a blanket indictment it is too severe. The book's worth lies in part in one characteristic that Thomas found questionable: its reliance on Herndon's material. Though the occasional twisting of that material by Black is present, and Herndon also involved himself regarding such matters as Lincoln's paternity and his religion while the book was being written, the greatest portion of the information sold by Hern- Page  [End Page 28] don to Lamon and used by Black covered ground that was far less controversial at the time of writing and now.

Furthermore, unlike William Herndon, Chauncey Black did not know Lincoln, was no expert on any part of his life, and never visited the areas whereof he wrote in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. Nor, it should be added, did Ward Hill Lamon possess a much better understanding of Lincoln's life before the presidency, aside from his acquaintance with Lincoln on the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit. There is no doubt that Black was motivated by his own prejudices in compiling this book and that he was vulnerable to Herndon's influences when and where they were imposed. But unlike Herndon, Black had no personal memory of Lincoln or his surroundings with which to augment Herndon's sources. Black was therefore necessarily more dependent on and for that reason far more faithful to those sources than Herndon and Jesse Weik were when they cowrote their own Lincoln biography.

Such an affirmation as this requires at least one illustration, and perhaps the best brief and one hopes self-evident example of this overall superior fidelity of Black to Herndon's evidence is to be found by contrasting some lines from Black's and Herndon and Weik's treatments of Lincoln's aborted engagement with Mary Todd, in which both authors relied on Herndon's interviews with Joshua Speed and Elizabeth Edwards. Speed, for instance, recalled Lincoln's account of his visit to Mary late in 1840 to break the engagement as follows:

Lincoln did go and see her— ... told her that he did not love her—she rose—and said "the deceiver shall be deceived wo is me," alluding to a young man she fooled—Lincoln drew her down on his knee kissed her—& parted—He going one way & she an other—Speed said—"Lincoln tell me what you said and did"—Lincoln told him—Speed said—The last thing is a bad lick, but it cannot now be helped—Lincoln did love Miss Edward's—"Mary" saw it—told Lincoln the reason of his change of mind—heart & soul—released him [25]
From this account Black crafted the following even briefer narration:
Lincoln went to see her forthwith, and reported to Speed. He said, that, when he made his somewhat startling communica- Page  [End Page 29] tion, she rose and said, "The deceiver shall be deceived: woe is me!" alluding to a young man she had fooled. Mary told him she knew the reason of his change of heart, and released him from his engagement. Some parting endearments took place between them, and then, as the natural result of those endearments, a reconciliation.[26]
Herndon professed to have been present himself during the conversation between Speed and Lincoln, and Herndon and Weik rendered it in this inventive fashion:

"Well, old fellow, did you do as I told you and as you promised?" were Speed's first words.

"Yes, I did," responded Lincoln, thoughtfully, "and when I told Mary I did not love her, she burst into tears and almost springing from her chair and wringing her hands as if in agony, said something about the deceiver being himself deceived." Then he stopped.

"What else did you say?" inquired Speed, drawing the facts from him.

"To tell you the truth Speed, it was too much for me. I found the tears trickling down my own cheeks. I caught her in my arms and kissed her."

"And that's how you broke the engagement," sneered Speed. "You not only acted the fool, but your conduct was tantamount to a renewal of the engagement, and in decency you cannot back down now."

"Well," drawled Lincoln, "if I am in again, so be it. It's done, and I shall abide by it." [27]

On the same or succeeding pages in their books both Black and Herndon accepted Elizabeth Edwards's dubious assertion that in spite of this reconciliation, Lincoln left Mary at the altar when their marriage was first to take place. Mrs. Edwards's recollection as Herndon first recorded it and Black's version are identical, as follows:

Lincoln and Mary were engaged; every thing was ready and prepared for the marriage, even to the supper. Mr. Lincoln failed to meet his engagement. Cause, insanity! [28]Page  [End Page 30]
The Herndon-Weik biography's treatment of this episode almost fills a page. Though Herndon did not attend the alleged event, the biography expansively describes totally undocumented decorations and furniture arrangements, a bride "bedecked in veil and silken gown, and nervously toying with the flowers in her hair," and guests increasingly impatient as the groom failed to appear. [29] Perhaps hardly more need be said. As Ruth Painter Randall once put it, Herndon and Weik had only a starting point in Mrs. Edwards's mention of wedding preparations but, in this instance at least, "glowing imagination and fluent pen did the rest."[30]One must reassert how indispensable Herndon's letters and interviews are to an understanding of Lincoln's early life but at the same time point out that there are no such flights in the Lamon-Black volume.

The Lamon-Black volume is distinguished for its coverage of the nonpolitical aspects of the formative years that Lincoln spent as an observer, a learner, and ultimately a leader in Indiana and in New Salem. These are subjects on which Herndon's informants shed new and invaluable light. The chapter on the Black Hawk War, though somewhat incomplete, is remarkably sensitive in its dealings with Lincoln's difficult role as a captain commanding the likes of New Salem's Clary Grove Boys. Relying again on Herndon's information, Black also undertook to describe and assess Lincoln's law practice in a fuller manner than any previous biographer had done. Many of Lincoln's letters that Herndon collected were used here for the first time, including Lincoln's revealing correspondence with Joshua Speed in 1842, his letters to Herndon while in Congress, his letters to Mary Owens, and, regrettably, his letter to Mrs. Orville Browning about Mary Owens. Perhaps the worth of the Lamon biography is most manifest in the dependence of Nicolay and Hay on it in their early chapters. Though they boasted in their introduction that they had tried to avoid the use of reminiscence in their Lincoln biography, their first volume is full of both attributed and unattributed references to the Lamon-Black volume, heavily dependent as it was on the reminiscences collected by William Herndon. [31] At the very least, as I shall attempt to show presently, this volume had an instigating effect on the further development of Lincoln biography. Page  [End Page 31]

The concluding sentence of the 1872 Lamon-Black book promises the reader another volume that would trace Lincoln's career as president. But by the time the 1872 book was published, Ward Hill Lamon no longer had a collaborator/ghostwriter; apparently, he had no source materials at his disposal on which to base such a book; and worst, he had no steady income. Book writing seemed for a time to take a backseat with him; his law practice with the Blacks having dissolved, Lamon spent time in West Virginia, in Washington, and later practicing law in Denver, and he unsuccessfully sought federal appointments under both the Hayes and Garfield administrations. He was in some continuous demand by editors as a source of recollections of Lincoln, and from time to time he contributed articles to newspapers and magazines based on those memories. [32] But by the mid-1880s it was known that Lamon had managed to produce a book-length manuscript dealing with Lincoln's administration, and it was understood that its publication was imminent.[33] Paraphrased extracts from the manuscript were actually published in the New York World in March 1886, though that was apparently the closest any of it ever came to public print. Still claiming peculiar authority as the putative creator of the 1872 volume and as "the repository of much of the secret history" of Lincoln's presidency, Lamon nonetheless never found a publisher for this book.[34]

This should be no surprise, for this so-called "second volume" of the Lamon biography would challenge the most patient editors and readers in Lamon's own time or the present. Writing a one-volume history of Lincoln's presidency would have daunted Chauncey Black, whose literary talents were considerable. For Lamon, such a task was totally out of range. Quite simply, his production is not well written; it is padded with undifferentiated military material; there is surprisingly little original material about Page  [End Page 32] Lincoln in it; indeed, it appears that Lamon never really decided whether he was producing a biography of Lincoln, a history of Lincoln's administration, or a short history of the Civil War. Given this diffusion of perspectives, the manuscript fails on all three counts.

Aside from its first chapter, already mentioned, of some additional interest in the manuscript is a new rendering of the story of the Baltimore plot, with less hostility to Allan Pinkerton evident than in the 1872 volume, and Lamon's own account of Lincoln's trip to the Antietam battlefield, which had been greatly misrepresented during the 1864 presidential campaign. [35] Lamon also attempted to use this opportunity to settle old scores with congressional Radicals, still smarting as he was from their attacks on him as adminstrator of the District jail while marshal of the District of Columbia and indignant as he was over their opposition to Lincoln. He was far more inclined to be charitable toward Stephen Douglas than Black had been in the earlier volume. Lamon gave vent here to an unrelenting anglophobia, holding Great Britain guilty of an implacable hostility to the Union war effort.[36] Yet there are surprisingly few anecdotes in this manuscript either originating with Lincoln or about the private Lincoln, in spite of Lamon's unusual opportunity to gather such stories on the circuit or during the presidency. Many of the anecdotes that are here were borrowed by Lamon from other sources, usually without attribution. [37] Even this opportunity to have contributed personally to Lincoln literature was beyond Lamon's grasp, at least during his lifetime.

It is of course ironic that Lamon's most original material on Lincoln was not gathered together and published until 1895, two years after his death, by his daughter. [38] And though it is generally believed that Dorothy Lamon mined the 1886 manuscript heavily to find information for her own volume, such is really not the case. Only a small part of the older work is in the Recollections, consti- Page  [End Page 33] tuting hardly more than a third of its content. The rest derives from notes and memoranda in Lamon's papers, most of which were doubtless drafts for speeches and newspaper or magazine articles, some items from the material that Lamon had purchased from Herndon years before, and occasional paraphrases of the 1872 Lamon-Black book. In the Recollectionscan be found the best-known Lincoln stories identified with Lamon. They include anecdotes about Lincoln's scandalously low fees while a lawyer on the Eighth Circuit and his temporarily lost first inaugural address. An extended version of Lincoln's controversial visit to Antietam is here, as is Lamon's famous tale of Lincoln's disappointment with the Gettysburg Address, averring that Lincoln called it "a flat failure" immediately after its delivery. Lamon's own rendition of the conflict between himself and congressional Radicals over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law in Washington is finally given public vent in this volume.[39] Upon the publication of the Recollections, Henry Clay Whitney wrote to Jesse Weik, admitting that the new book was "quite interesting" and "on the whole creditable to Lincoln and Lamon," though he thought it would not pay Weik to buy it. [40] Whitney was wrong, for there is much in the Recollectionsthat even Weik, as custodian of the original materials the now-dead Herndon had collected, might not have seen before.

One must conclude by pointing out the catalytic impact that the 1872 Lamon-Black volume had on Lincoln biography, and the peculiar relationship, akin to a pas de deux, that existed between efforts undertaken in the name of Lamon and those of John G. Nicolay and John Hay. Lamon and Black's strong suggestion of Lincoln's illegitimacy profoundly offended Robert Todd Lincoln, and the case that Black made for Lincoln's religious infidelity touched off a controversy that ultimately involved the Reverend James Reed of Springfield, Mary Todd Lincoln, and William Herndon, and contributed heavily to Herndon's bad name in Springfield and abroad. Nicolay and Hay had long been committed to producing a Lincoln biography of their own; the appearance of Lamon's to them scandalous book seems to have encouraged them and their essential patron, Robert Todd Lincoln, to get started on a work that would set the record straight. Lincoln urged them to "make a respectable book," claiming that it was "absolutely horri- Page  [End Page 34] ble to think of such men as Herndon & Lamon being considered in the light they claim."[41]

It has already been noted that as they composed their great work, Robert Lincoln's sensibilities to the contrary notwithstanding, Nicolay and Hay were obliged to rely on Lamon's citations of Herndon's informants for much information on Lincoln's early life. They were also dependent on Lamon's book for the texts of such important documents as Lincoln's letters to Joshua Speed and the correspondence attending Lincoln's aborted duel with James Shields.[42] And as the Nicolay and Hay enterprise began to come to fruition in the mid-1880s, so also did rumors begin to circulate about Lamon's "second volume," precisely at the time that Herndon and Weik were committing themselves to a Lincoln book based on Herndon's original materials. Indeed, Herndon rather nervously wrote to Lamon late in 1885 to find out just what would be covered in Lamon's new work and was relieved to learn that the two books probably wouldn't overlap. [43] Later, Herndon and Lamon would jointly take pleasure in savaging Nicolay and Hay.[44]

The Nicolay and Hay venture became increasingly public during the next year, especially as the authors' commitment to serialize in the Century Magazine became known. The coincidence of that with the announcement of Lamon's forthcoming second book eventually touched off some abortive negotiations between Hay and Lamon. Apparently, by the autumn of 1887 Lamon was beginning to despair of finding a publisher for his own manuscript, and he undertook to sell it, the rights to the 1872 volume, and the materials that he had purchased from Herndon to Hay and Nicolay. Hay wanted neither Lamon's book manuscript nor a copyright on it, but he professed interest in the Herndon materials for the additional light they might shed on the first volume of his and Nicolay's work—but he was only mildly interested in that. Privately, however, he allowed to Nicolay that it would be worthwhile to acquire Lamon's manuscript material, "not to use, but to keep others from using it, and to complete the collection for some future ultimate Page  [End Page 35] destination," apparently thinking to add it to the Lincoln papers that Robert Lincoln had placed at his and Nicolay's disposal.[45] Perhaps thankfully, nothing came of the negotiation, and before the end of the year Lamon was proposing to offer a series of articles about Lincoln to a consortium of newspaper publishers.[46] He seems to have been reasonably successful in that activity before and content to pursue it thereafter. The nearly simultaneous publication of the Herndon-Weik (1889) and Nicolay and Hay (1890) biographies generated a new public hunger for information about Lincoln, which Lamon and others were only too happy to oblige.

Yet as Nicolay and Hay's enterprise ground on, in the magazine serialization and in the publication of their many volumes in 1890, Lamon must have been gratified by the occasional complimentary letter that he received relative to the two book-length forays into Lincoln biography that had been made over his name. These came in response to what seemed to be the excessively adulatory quality of the Nicolay and Hay work, which stood in utter contrast to the perhaps overdone realism of the work written over Lamon's name. After objecting to Nicolay and Hay's tendency to magnify Lincoln's virtues and abilities, Lyman Trumbull wrote Lamon that the 1872 volume was "the only true history of Lincoln's early life that I have ever read." Of Lincoln, Trumbull said, "He possessed many noble qualities, but like other mortals had his weaknesses, & it is folly to picture him as more than man." Alexander K. McClure of the Philadelphia Times scoffed at Nicolay and Hay's qualifications even to write a Lincoln biography: "The man Lincoln and his plans and methods were all Greek to them," he wrote. McClure regretted Lamon's inability to publish his "second volume" on Lincoln's administration and wanted him to try again, for "there are so few who had any knowledge of the inner working of Mr. Lincoln's administration that I think you owe to the proof of history to finish the work you begun [sic]."[47]

Lamon of course did not do that. He was at the end of his life and content to leave the field to others. But, however few and even wrongheaded these complimentary crumbs may have been, per- Page  [End Page 36] haps in the end Ward Hill Lamon felt somewhat vindicated as a Lincoln biographer. At least arguably, because of the response to his 1872 book in particular, the most extensive Lincoln biography ever published—Nicolay and Hay's—was finally begun. Furthermore, over Lamon's name at least, new ground had been broken in the field of Lincoln biography as filiopietism began to be replaced by a new form of realism that brought Lincoln down to earth. Instrumental in this new realism was the use of Herndon's materials on Lincoln; they were first brought into widespread view in the Lamon-Black biography and consulted for the most part even more faithfully than Herndon and Weik were later to do. Every Lincoln biographer since Lamon and Black has had to come to terms with Herndon's materials. Lamon's record in the area of Lincoln biography is certainly not an unmixed one and perhaps not altogether distinguished but in its way was innovative. Indeed, I believe we must say that it was significant. Page  [End Page 37]


  1. These disparate assessments are found in Clint Clay Tilton, "Lincoln and Lamon: Partners and Friends," Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year 1931 (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1931), 183, 223; Mark Neely Jr., ed., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 178. return to text
  2. The only extensive treatment of Lamon's life is by Lavern M. Hamand, "Ward Hill Lamon: Lincoln's 'Particular Friend'" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, 1949), which unfortunately ends with Lincoln's assassination, twenty-eight years before Lamon's own death.return to text
  3. Ward Hill Lamon, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1872). return to text
  4. Ibid., 512–27. For an explanation of Lamon's feud with Pinkerton, see Norma Cuthbert, Lincoln and the Baltimore Plot (San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1949), 85–88, 117–23. Lamon was at least initially involved in selecting subject matter for this first biographical volume; he seems to have commonplaced at least one of the volumes of material that he bought from Herndon, commenting on some of the material and recommending inclusion or exclusion. That commonplace book survives in the University of Illinois Library at Urbana as "Memoranda for the Biography of A. Lincoln by Ward H. Lamon, Washington, D.C., May 13th, 1870." I am grateful to John Hoffmann, director of the Illinois Historical Survey at the University of Illinois Library, for bringing that volume to my attention.return to text
  5. Lamon, "Lincoln's Administration," mss. LN 2418 A & B, Ward Hill Lamon Papers, Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. (hereinafter cited as LP). The first chapter of this manuscript is nearly identical to the manuscript chapter 21 that is now in Box 74, Jeremiah Black Papers, Library of Congress. return to text
  6. Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847–1865, ed. Dorothy Lamon (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1895).return to text
  7. See Albert V. House Jr., "The Trials of a Ghost-Writer of Lincoln's Biography: Chauncey F. Black's Authorship of Lamon's Lincoln," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 31 (1938): 262–96; Benjamin P. Thomas, Portrait for Posterity: Lincoln and His Biographers (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1947), 29–90; David Donald, Lincoln's Herndon: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), 250–57, 266–84; Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln and American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 77–81.return to text
  8. Browning to Arnold, Nov. 25, 1872, and Welles to Arnold, Nov. 27, 1872, in Isaac N. Arnold Papers, Chicago Historical Society; Arnold to Browning, Nov. 22, 1872, ms. HM 23986, Judd Stewart Collection, Huntington Library; Speed to Lamon, June 24, 1872, and Wickizer to Lamon, Dec. 9, 1872, mss. LN 628 and LN 766, LP; James G. Randall, ed., "The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning," vol. 2, Illinois Historical Collections 22 (1933), 351, 366; Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1872; Joseph Logsdon, Horace White: Nineteenth-Century Liberal (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971), 80–81. return to text
  9. See, for example, Lincoln to Dennis Hanks, Dec. 4, 1872; to Lamon, Jan. 28, 1883; to President Lowell, June 14, 1911, all in Thomas F. Schwartz, ed., "'I Have Never Had Any Doubt of Your Good Intentions': William Henry Herndon and Ward Hill Lamon as Described in Correspondence from the Robert T. Lincoln Letterpress Volumes," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 14 (1993): 42–43, 45–47, 52. return to text
  10. Herndon to Lamon, Dec. 16, 1869, ms. LN 345, LP.return to text
  11. Lamon to Herndon, Feb. 18, 1870, group 4, reel 9, 1522–31, Herndon-Weik Collection (microfilm); Herndon to Lamon, Feb. 25, Mar. 3, 6, and 15, 1870, mss. LN 367, LN 2327, LN 348, LN 349, LP (quotation from March 15 letter). By the time the Herndon-Weik biography was being written, Herndon had concluded that Lincoln was indeed the child of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. See Herndon to Truman Bartlett, Sept. 25, 1887, in Emanuel Hertz, ed., The Hidden Lincoln: From the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon (New York: Viking, 1938), 205. return to text
  12. Herndon to Lamon, Feb. 24, 1869 [1870], Feb. 25, 1870, mss. LN 343, LN 367, LP.return to text
  13. Herndon to Lamon, Mar. 6, 1870, ms. LN 366, LP.return to text
  14. Herndon to Lamon, Mar. 15, 1870, ms. LN 349, LP.return to text
  15. Black to Lamon, Mar. 8, 1870, group 5, reel 12, 253–56; Black to Herndon, Jan. 9, 1873, group 4, reel 9, 1573–75, Herndon-Weik Collection (microfilm). return to text
  16. Black bemoaned the aborting of this scheme of two contrasting volumes in a letter to J. S. Clark of the J. R. Osgood Company on March 21, 1872 (ms. 60721), Jeremiah Black Papers, Library of Congress.return to text
  17. Lamon, Life, 142–43; undated statement by Ellis to Herndon, ms. LN 2408, 1:399–411, LP. return to text
  18. Lamon, Life, 57, 123, 275; Herndon interviews with Dennis Hanks, Sept. 8, 1865, and Nathaniel Grigsby, Sept. 16, 1865, mss. LN 2408, 1:104–10, 94, LP. The quote is from Lamon, Life, 57. For further evidence of Jones's Whig affiliation, see Rebecca A. Shepherd, Charles W. Calhoun, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker, and Alan F. January, comps., A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly I, 1816–1899 (Indianapolis: Select Committee on the Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1980), 212.return to text
  19. Lamon, Life, 147–48, 186, 198, 274.return to text
  20. Ibid., 298. This sort of delicacy seems to have been shared by Black and his father, who in an unsent letter to David Davis said of Lincoln, "His best and warmest friends do not conceal the grossness of some incidents in his life.... He certainly does not compare well with the refined and cultivated gentlemen (fifteen of them) who preceded him in the executive chair" (Jeremiah S. Black to Davis, July 9, 1870, draft in Black Papers, mss. 60045–60046).return to text
  21. Lamon, Life, 339–40. return to text
  22. Ibid., 344–46, 377. return to text
  23. Ibid., 341, 343–44, 386–87, 416–17, 454 (quotation from 343–44). return to text
  24. Thomas, Portrait for Posterity, 89. return to text
  25. Undated Herndon interview with Speed, ms. LN 2408, 2:59–64, LP. See also Douglas L. Wilson, "Abraham Lincoln and 'That Fatal First of January,' " Civil War History 38 (1992): 104–6.return to text
  26. Lamon, Life, 240. return to text
  27. William H. Herndon and Jesse Weik, Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, 2 vols. (Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1889), 11, 213.return to text
  28. Undated Herndon interview with Mrs. N. W. Edwards, ms. LN 2408, 2:220–26, LP; Lamon, Life, 240. return to text
  29. Herndon and Weik, Herndon's Lincoln, 2:214–15.return to text
  30. Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953), 40. return to text
  31. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, 10 vols. (New York: Century, 1890), 1:xii, 27, 30 36, 37, 41–43, 72, 97, 172, 305. return to text
  32. McClure to Lamon, Jan. 1, 1877; Bradford Ward to Lamon, Feb. 20, 1884; Allen Thorndike Rice to Lamon, Mar. 24, 1885, mss. LN 359, LN 742, LN 1754, LP. return to text
  33. Lamon to Rice, Apr. 1885[?]; David D. Porter to Lamon, Oct. 24, 1885; Herndon to Lamon, Nov. 18, 1885, Dec. 1, 1885; Lamon to James G. Blaine, June 1886, mss. LN 2425, LN 2312, LN 362, LN 363, LN 515, LP.return to text
  34. New York World, Mar. 21, 1886. I acknowledge the help of Jane Davis, who found this citation for me. Black's authorship of the Lamon-Black volume was not generally known to the public until 1910. See Joseph Fort Newton, Lincoln and Herndon (Cedar Rapids, Ia.: Torch Press, 1910), 307; House, "Trials of a Ghost-Writer," 265.return to text
  35. Lamon, "Lincoln's Administration," 110–11, 274–76.return to text
  36. Ibid., 42–43, 123–33, 192–204, 320, 369–80, 483–92. return to text
  37. For instance, examples of stories used by Lamon that originated with Francis Carpenter's Six Months in the White House (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1867) can be found in Lamon, "Lincoln's Administration," 289–93, 367, 439–44, 469–70, and Carpenter, Six Months, 49, 53–54, 91–92, 116–19, 145, 155, 256. Paul M. Zall believes that of the humorous Lincoln anecdotes used by Lamon, only four were original to this manuscript. See Zall, Abe Lincoln Laughing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 90–91.return to text
  38. Lamon, Recollections. return to text
  39. Ibid., 17–19, 35–37, 144–56, 169–79, 254–62.return to text
  40. Whitney to Weik, Nov. 18, 1895, Jan. 8, [1896], group 5, reel 13, 725 and reel 14, 1502, Herndon-Weik Collection (microfilm); quotation from Nov. 18 letter. return to text
  41. Lincoln to John Hay, Apr. 7, 1872, Hay Papers, Brown University (hereinafter cited as HPBU). Michael Burlingame procured a copy of this letter for me and I am grateful. See also Hay to Nicolay, Nov. 22, 1872, HPBU. return to text
  42. Hay to Nicolay, Jan. 20, 1879; Nicolay to Hay, Jan. 24, 1879, HPBU. A year earlier, Hay had opined to Nicolay that they should acquire Lamon's papers should the opportunity arise. Hay to Nicolay, Feb. 27, 1878, HPBU. return to text
  43. Herndon to Lamon, Nov. 18, 1885, Dec. 1, 1885, mss. LN 362, LN 363, LP.return to text
  44. Herndon to Lamon, Dec. 13, 1886, ms. LN 364, LP.return to text
  45. Hay to Lamon, Sept. 23 and 27, Oct. 10, 1887, mss. LN 320, LN 1009, LN 321, LP; Hay to Nicolay, Sept. 18, 1887; Nicolay to Hay, Sept. 21, 1887; Lamon to Hay, Oct. 5, 1887, HPBU.return to text
  46. Lamon to fifteen newspaper editors (drafts of the same letter), [Nov. 1887], ms. LN 1229, LP. return to text
  47. Trumbull to Lamon, June 8, 1888; McClure to Lamon, Sept. 1, 1891, mss. LN 680, LN 398, LP. return to text