Why is it that the name of William H. Herndon is Mudd? How does it happen that the man who interviewed and corresponded with scores of Abraham Lincoln's friends and acquaintances, who carefully preserved the resulting documents and information for posterity, who freely shared with all comers his personal knowledge of his law partner in hundreds of letters and interviews, who fearlessly challenged the hagiographers attempting to transform a mortal politician into a martyred saint, and who, in the face of strong opposition and popular derision, championed veracity in all matters and insisted that the greatness of Abraham Lincoln could not be diminished by the truth — how does it happen that such a man should be so mistrusted by the great Lincoln scholars, so belittled by his biographer, and so disparaged by others that we should find him, as we do today, in the doghouse of Lincoln scholarship?

It is scarcely necessary to document this state of affairs. For those even superficially acquainted with the Lincoln literature of recent years, it is virtually self-evident. Every schoolchild knows that the Ann Rutledge story, first discovered and put forward by Herndon, is a myth. The most casual reader of modern Lincoln biography soon learns how Herndon botched the story of Lincoln's courtship of Mary Todd and described, down to the bridal flowers, an aborted wedding ceremony that never happened. And the aficionados of Mary Todd Lincoln, whose numbers are steadily growing, know all too well that Mary's character and reputation have had to be rescued from an opprobrium unfairly inflicted on her by Herndon's harsh and malicious portrait. The well-informed student knows that Herndon was a drunk, that he was self-important and boastful of his intuitive powers, that he claimed credit for having introduced Lincoln to advanced views, that he coached his informants to tell him what he wanted to hear, and that he ignored testimony that he did not believe or could not accept, while at the same time giving credence to doubtful evidence. His considerable contributions, which once seemed to assure him the acclaim of a grateful posterity, appear so Page  [End Page 15]

 Undated photograph of Herndon late in life.
Undated photograph of Herndon late in life. Page  [End Page 16]
decidedly overbalanced by the prejudices of the present that it is only fair to ask, How did this come about? And does Herndon deserve the unenviable reputation he presently enjoys?


There is not much doubt that Herndon's slide into disfavor was coincidental with the rise of a new breed of student in the Lincoln field in the second quarter of this century, the academically trained historians. These scholars — one thinks of people like Paul M. Angle, Benjamin Thomas, Harry Pratt, and James G. Randall — were less interested in the Lincoln of popular legend, the inspirational embodiment of American virtues and values that had held the stage for years, than in what they thought of as the Lincoln of history, the politician and the president who made a difference. In their view, the popular Lincoln had already gotten out of hand and had ascended (or descended) to the level of folklore. Folklore might feed on rumor or conjecture, but historical inquiry must be based upon evidence, and that evidence must be genuine. This brilliant corps of Lincoln students were historians first and brought to Lincoln studies a healthy professional skepticism that balked at much of what passed for evidence with their popularizing predecessors.

The appearance of these scholars in the 1920s and 1930s brought about a new order of Lincoln scholarship with its own emphasis and standards. What made their achievement so notable and their contribution so important and lasting is that they went back to basics and undertook much of the hard, grinding, unglamorous research that put Lincoln studies on a solid footing, studies of things like Lincoln's finances and the communities in which he lived, the invaluable series that charted Lincoln's activities day-by-day, and the well-crafted edition of Lincoln's writings. The movement away from the popular Lincoln and the insistence upon more rigorous standards for historical evidence constituted something of a scholarly juggernaut that took few prisoners and inflicted heavy casualties. Among the first of these casualties was the reputation and standing of William H. Herndon.

Paul M. Angle's attack on Herndon in 1927 is particularly revealing, for it sounded the keynote for what was to come. Fresh out of graduate school and recently installed as executive secretary of the Lincoln Centennial Association, the twenty-seven-year-old Angle took almost the first opportunity presented him as a Lincoln authority to strike out sharply at the authenticity of the Ann Rutledge Page  [End Page 17] story, calling it "one of the great myths of American history."[1] Angle's reasons are well known — principally, that Herndon relied exclusively on unconfirmed reminiscences given thirty years after the fact and that he ignored or suppressed conflicting evidence — but his attack struck, and presumably was intended to strike, much deeper than the Ann Rutledge story. It called into question the entire body of evidence associated with Herndon by charging that such reminiscences were not only subject to the hazards of memory, but that the testimony of such informants was suspect because they were naturally anxious to associate themselves with the development of the martyred president.[2] This was, indeed, a potent charge, for these were grounds upon which virtually all of the testimony gathered by Herndon could be readily impeached.


Although one could not have guessed it from Angle's critique, Angle himself had not seen a fraction of Herndon's testimony concerning the Ann Rutledge affair, much less a sizable portion of Herndon's collection of letters and interviews on Lincoln. Angle based his indictment on the documents cited by Herndon and his collaborator, Jesse W. Weik, and possibly a look at the copies of some of the documents Herndon had sold to Ward Hill Lamon, which had ended up in the Huntington Library.[3] Not until the Herndon-Weik Collection was purchased by the Library of Congress in 1941 were scholars able to examine the original documents for themselves, and it is hardly surprising that one of the first to avail himself of the privilege was the leading Lincoln scholar of the day, James G. Randall.

In preparing his landmark study of Lincoln's presidency, Randall duly consulted and made use of the testimony Herndon collected, although because most of the material bears on the pre-presidential years, Randall's main use of Herndon's documents was in his preliminary pages on Lincoln's background. But such was his concern Page  [End Page 18] for the Ann Rutledge story that he included in his manuscript an entire chapter on the Ann Rutledge evidence, which, after some indecision, he decided to relegate to an appendix. In that famous essay, "Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence," Randall brought the full weight of his authority to bear on a subject that, as he was willing to admit, was extraneous to his study of Lincoln's presidency. He was taking up the question, he wrote, "not for any intrinsic importance at all, but because historical criticism finds here a challenge and a needful task." [4]

I have offered an exposition and critique of Randall's arguments elsewhere and will not undertake to rehearse them here.[5] Suffice it to say that Randall confirmed Angle's charges against Herndon and handed down a verdict that drew a line between personal reminiscences such as those on which the Ann Rutledge story is based and acceptable historical evidence. Randall's verdict amounted to a proscription of the Ann Rutledge story in serious Lincoln biography, and it is a measure of Randall's standing and influence that his interdiction prevailed virtually unquestioned until John Y. Simon challenged his conclusions at the Abraham Lincoln Symposium in 1988. [6]

It is not an accident, nor is it without significance, that Randall's attack on the Ann Rutledge story was gratuitous. As he himself admits, it formed no part of the story he wished to tell, and he had every right to ignore it. But the Ann Rutledge story disturbed Randall more than a little, as the files and correspondence on the subject in his personal papers at the Library of Congress show. In his view, it was a story that had "usurped the spotlight,"[7] and he aimed to discredit and crush it. That he hoped to influence a broader audience than Lincoln scholars is clear from his attempt to have his Ann Rutledge chapter published separately in Reader's Digest. [8]

Soon after the appearance of Randall's appendix in 1945, Louis Page  [End Page 19] A. Warren published two concurring briefs: one on what he called "Herndon's Contributions to Lincoln Mythology," [9] and one more openly acknowledging its debt to Randall, "Sifting the Herndon Sources." [10] In the first, he charged Herndon with the invention of at least a dozen popular myths about Lincoln, and in the second he ratified Randall's conclusions about the Ann Rutledge story and pointed to its more general application in connection with other Herndonian "myths." Warren's essays and their timing were an indication that the tide of opinion had turned decisively against Herndon, but David Donald's biography, published in 1948, was to carry him far out to sea.


Donald's biography had been begun at Randall's direction, presumably as part of the mentor's program to investigate the man and methods responsible for such unfortunate red herrings as the Ann Rutledge episode. There is, indeed, much to be said in criticism of Herndon, his methods, and especially his intuitive judgments, and the young David Donald managed to say it all. Although a rewritten doctoral dissertation by another fledgling scholar, Donald's biography, Lincoln's Herndon, is an extremely impressive piece of work; thoroughly — one might almost say massively — researched, richly informed, and written in a lively, engaging style. Donald strove to uncover the facts of Herndon's life and career and tell his story with due regard for his subject's virtues and vices, but he could not suppress a tendency to satirize his subject nor disguise his belief that Herndon was not quite worthy of our respect.

It must be allowed that Donald attempts to render Herndon his due. He writes: "There is not, to the present writer's knowledge, a single letter or other manuscript of Herndon's that reveals a desire or willingness to tell an untruth about Lincoln.... Herndon may have been in error, but he was not a liar."[11] The difficulty here is that this tribute to Herndon's truthfulness comes almost as a surprise announcement near the end of the book. Had this been stated at the outset and been one of the themes of the work, there is no doubt Page  [End Page 20] that it would have made for a very different overall impression of Herndon, and perhaps for a different book.

Donald's actual presentation of his subject proved so irresistible that his picture of Herndon has fixed itself with the reading public as indelibly as Herndon's picture of Lincoln. But Donald's is an extremely limited, tightly focused picture that concentrates on one aspect of a man's life rather than being a full-scale biography. An indication of the kind of thing left out in Donald's book is revealed in the following passage: "It was a busy time with him. Herndon was attending court, collecting his Lincoln records, leading a fight against Springfield's flourishing houses of prostitution, and heading a committee which planned removal of the county courthouse. There was a new and ailing baby at the Herndon house, who might, it was feared, die any moment. During all this confusion William Lloyd Garrison paid Springfield an unsolicited visit and was invited to stay with the Herndons."[12] Few of these interesting topics are pursued further, and indeed there is very little about Herndon's family or personal life in this biography and only a few provocative references to his active and extensive public life. With these critical dimensions of the man and his character almost entirely missing, Donald's biography, to reverse one of his own figures, is something like a head without a body.


But none of these considerations were part of the heady response that made Donald's brilliant performance a popular book in 1948. Following the lead of Randall and Donald, Lincoln scholars began in the 1950s to take it as axiomatic that Herndon and his evidence were unreliable, and some respected authorities, such as Ruth Painter Randall and John J. Duff, would go further and picture him as a biographical assassin.[13] By the 1960s it was open season on Herndon. An indicative example is a remark by Paul Simon in his invaluable book on Lincoln's career in the Illinois General Assembly. In discussing Lincoln's alleged logrolling in the Illinois legislature, Simon disputes some pertinent testimony given to Herndon by Stephen T. Page  [End Page 21] Logan, saying that "Herndon did not hesitate to change interviews to make them fit his preconceived theories." [14] Simon offered no explanation or documentation for this serious charge; it was presumably common knowledge among Lincoln scholars, requiring no justification.

In these circumstances, it comes as no surprise to find Herndon represented unsympathetically in a standard reference work of recent date, The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia by Mark E. Neely, Jr., who questions even Herndon's humanitarian sympathy for blacks. [15] The status that Herndon occupies at present is perhaps perfectly exemplified in a passage in Jean H. Baker's biography of Mary Todd Lincoln. Baker writes: "Later his law partner and biographer William Herndon incorrectly charged that Lincoln had contracted venereal disease in Beardstown in the 1830s."[16] The basis of this statement is that Herndon told his collaborator, Jesse W. Weik, that Lincoln had once told him that as a young man he had contracted syphilis from a girl in Beardstown, a fact that Herdon was anxious not to have repeated, even in his own biography. [17] Baker unhesitatingly transforms this into a reckless "charge" made by Herndon against Lincoln, and one she does not hesitate to label as "incorrect." The point she wants to make does not require this tack: "More likely Lincoln feared the intimacy and sexual union of marriage, not because he suffered from syphilis but because like many Victorian males, he thought he might have the disease."[18] The slur against Herndon is thus entirely gratuitous. As has become all too typical, Baker accepts the information that Herndon conveys — that Lincoln feared he had venereal disease and once spoke of it to Herndon — but in so doing needlessly and quite unfairly makes Herndon the author of a false accusation. Far from being intentionally unfair to Herndon, it seems certain that Baker inadvertently slipped into this distortion because of Herndon's abysmally low standing with contemporary historians. Page  [End Page 22]

Jesse Weik

Baker herself is fully aware of the insidious nature of the situation I have been describing. In a commentary on a paper by Charles B. Strozier, she noted, "Now Herndon, it seems to me, is every Lincoln scholar's reserve army — available to make a point when he agrees with whatever conclusion we wish to establish, but having been so often discredited, easily dismissed when we disagree." [19] Exactly. Anyone who wants to deal with Lincoln's early life has no alternative but to resort to Herndon's evidence, for there is precious little else. Page  [End Page 23] Yet Herndon's standing is such that we are free to reject with impunity anything Herndon or his informants say that does not jibe with our own conceptions. But when we reflect that those conceptions are themselves partly the products of selective readings of Herndon's evidence, we may begin to fathom the depth of our dilemma.


To address this dilemma, one must begin with Herndon himself. Although we have had two good books on Herndon — Joseph Fort Newton's study published in 1910, which is still useful, and David Donald's 1948 biography — we still lack a full and balanced portrait of the man. Donald is good, wickedly good, on Herndon's foibles, which were not inconsiderable and cannot be overlooked. But by a curious inversion, Herndon's shortcomings bring out the best in his biographer, for his style never appears so scintillating nor his wit so sharply engaged as when he is ridiculing or running down his subject. But he is notably restrained and circumspect when it comes to discussing his virtues. It is precisely this skewed emphasis and lack of proportion that characterize the picture most modern Lincoln students have of William H. Herndon.

One cannot hope to redress the balance here, but I would like, a hundred years after his death, to say a word or two in mitigation. I offer no defense of Herndon's claims to superior intuitive insight or his many speculations about Lincoln's motivations and inner life. I merely note that although in his letters and early lectures he made some unguarded and rather extravagant claims along these lines that are often used against him, the finished biography is far less subject to this charge. Neither do I defend Herndon's claims to have influenced his law partner's views on important political issues, although one can see how Herndon might conclude that Lincoln's adoption of some of his positions was evidence of that.

Nonetheless, I would like to address a few of the serious charges commonly made against Herndon as a biographer. Take Herndon's drinking, for example. Although a responsible and respected citizen, a dutiful and devoted father and family man, Herndon was subject at certain times in his life to drunken sprees, which sometimes had to be terminated by the intercession of his friends — or the law. "That Herndon drank excessively during this period [when he was researching his biography] is undeniable," Donald writes, but he acknowledges that during the same period Herndon "retained an Page  [End Page 24] upstanding leadership in Springfield affairs. In the decade following 1865 he was in constant demand. It is hard to find a single month in that period when Herndon was not called on to head some committee, promote some reform, speak for some civic cause. In every public meeting of importance held in Springfield during the decade (except church gatherings) Herndon was asked to speak."[20]

remains of the Herndon farm, circa 1930.
The remains of the Herndon farm, circa 1930.

The truth seems to be that, in this respect, Herndon was a good deal like Ulysses S. Grant. And like Grant, the evidence is not so much that drinking affected the quality of his work, but rather that he could not work as long as he was drinking. Although it is pointed to over and over by Herndon's detractors, his susceptibility to drunken sprees has never been shown to have seriously compromised his abilities or performance as a biographer of Lincoln. For this reason, it is greatly to his credit that Donald confesses in the preface to a new edition of his biography that he tended, when writing the book, "to think of alcoholism as evidence of moral depravity, rather Page  [End Page 25] than of disease" and admits that this prejudice is probably reflected in its pages.[21]

Much fault has been found with Herndon as an investigator, but I believe that there is much more to be said in his defense. As the documents in the Herndon-Weik archive attest, Herndon spent a prodigious amount of time and effort pursuing and procuring information about Abraham Lincoln. They show that he examined and cross-examined his informants with care, that he sought information both open-endedly and on a wide variety of specific topics, that he checked up on doubtful or conflicting stories, and that he acted in accordance with his stated purpose, which was to learn and publish the truth about his great law partner. There is very little indication that Herndon led or coerced his informants to tell him what he wanted to hear, in spite of the currency of this charge. Donald, for example, writes, "From Mary Lincoln's sister, Mrs. Ninian W. Edwards, Herndon coaxed an account of that 'fatal 1st of January, 1841.'" [22] There is no evidence that the imperious Mrs. Edwards had been coaxed by Herndon to invent an aborted wedding ceremony for her sister. This is sheer supposition, and if Herndon is sometimes guilty of adding fanciful touches, such as the famous bridal flowers, it would be hard to find anything in his biography so at odds with the evidence as the imaginary coaxing of Elizabeth Edwards.

Herndon has also been accused of things for which there is little or no evidence, but only a presumption of guilt. Consider Donald's remark, "From a knowledge of Herndon and from the extant letters in which he quizzed witnesses, it may be assumed that he harped on certain episodes in the Lincoln story — tales of the President's domestic infelicity, for example — to the neglect of other, and perhaps more important points."[23] But note that this harsh judgment is not based on any actual evidence but on an undocumented assumption. Far from corroboration for this charge, what one finds in the documents themselves is a rather scrupulous questioner who is genuinely interested in what his informants have to say, not what he expects or wants them to say.

There is also very little indication that he suppressed important testimony that undermined his own theories, another common charge. He certainly did not believe all he was told, and he admits he did Page  [End Page 26] not write down all the stories offered him. On the other hand, misunderstanding abounds about what is in the collection and how it was gathered. Louis A. Warren, although he wrote knowingly about Herndon's evidence, seemed to have no idea it was far more extensive than the modest selection printed in Emanuel Hertz's The Hidden Lincoln, which is estimated at 8 percent of the letters and interviews.[24]

What all this shows is that the chief difficulty, and the crux of the problem, is that very few students of Lincoln and Herndon have taken the trouble to read widely in the great mass of hard-to-read, handwritten material that is the Herndon-Weik Collection so as to be able to judge Herndon's evidence and the performance of his informants for themselves. Most are familiar with some of the more famous letters and interviews and with the badly edited sample published in the The Hidden Lincoln. For judgments on the collection as a whole, however, students of Lincoln continue to rely on the damning estimates of Angle, Randall, and Donald, estimates that I believe are far from even-handed, often quite unfair, and are frequently more adversarial than judicial. One of the chief legacies of their damning assessment is the absence of a reliable edition of Herndon's documents. I believe that a fair reading of these letters and interviews in their entirety will show them to be very different from what they have been represented to be, to say nothing of the important information still to be gleaned from them, but I also believe that no mere examples offered here or elsewhere are likely to convert students accustomed to relying upon the judgments of Angle, Randall, and Donald. On that score, one can only counsel patience, for a carefully transcribed and annotated edition is on the way.


As interest in Mary Todd Lincoln is revived and new estimates of her life and character are brought forward, it is inevitable that Herndon's treatment of Mary and her relationship with Lincoln should come under scrutiny. Because the picture of Mary in Herndon's biography is unflattering, especially because he represented Lincoln's domestic life as often difficult and unpleasant, Ruth Painter Randall Page  [End Page 27] believed Herndon was little short of wicked, and she attacked him repeatedly in her biography of Mary Todd Lincoln as malicious and a distorter of the truth. She rationalzed her running excoriation of Herndon by saying, "In telling Mary Lincoln's life story it is necessary to take Herndon along as excess baggage," [25] apparently her way of admitting that in telling the Lincoln story, it is necessary to take Herndon along, period.

Nothing invokes Ruth Randall's scorn more than what she calls Herndon's "framed-up account" of the story of Lincoln as a defaulting bridegroom, which she insists Herndon made up "out of his 'intuitive' knowledge."[26] But anyone familiar with Herndon's letters and interviews knows that Herndon did not make up this story; he got it from Mary's sister Elizabeth Edwards, who repeated it independently to Herndon's collaborator Jesse Weik. Although Randall does not advertise it, Edwards's long statement to Herndon constitutes the heart and soul of her own reconstruction of the troubled courtship, the story of the defaulting bridegroom being almost the only part that Randall rejects. One may agree that she was right to reject this highly unlikely story, but why she should charge Herndon with making it up to do mischief to the memory of Mary Todd is another question.

But did Herndon set out to malign Mary Todd? To document what she calls Herndon's "hatred" of Mary, Randall cites Donald's listing of a string of unflattering phrases that Herndon applied to Mary in a series of letters to Weik. [27] But if one reads the letters themselves, the charge of hatred appears well off the mark. Herndon does indeed call her a "she wolf" and "a tigress," but he also credits her with an essential role in Lincoln's success. What is more, one finds Herndon explaining Mary's situation to Weik with understanding and sympathy: "In her domestic troubles I have always sympathized with her. The world does not know what she bore and the history of the bearing. I will write it out some time. This domestic hell of Lincoln's life is not all on one side." [28] In another of these letters, he tells Weik, "I have always sympathized with Mrs. Lincoln. Remember that Every Effect must have its Cause. Mrs. Lincoln was not a she wolf — wild Cat without a Cause."[29] Ignoring such important ingre- Page  [End Page 28] dients in Herndon's complex attitude toward Mary Todd Lincoln and passing it off as nothing but hatred indicates what is clear in many other ways, namely that neither Donald nor Ruth Randall is disposed to be fair or even-handed in their treatment of the hapless Herndon.

In short, these letters do not establish anything like a hatred for Mary, nor does Herndon's portrait of her in his biography. As Donald admits, Mary was not popular in Springfield,[30] and Herndon's biography, drawing on the voluntary testimony of people who knew her and his own personal knowledge, tells why. Although she was proud of her husband and doted on her children, the townspeople perceived her as aristocratic, willful, inconsiderate, quarrelsome, and possessed of a violent temper. Her subsequent behavior in Washington, where she was out of the range of Herndon and her Springfield neighbors, did nothing to improve her image. Herndon had his own interpretation of why, as he believed, Mary made Lincoln's domestic life a trial, and it is no more than a speculation. But he did not invent Mary's abundantly documented foibles or create her Springfield reputation, and clearly the picture he draws squares much more closely with what knowledgable witnesses agreed upon than that put forth by Ruth Randall and other defenders of Mary Lincoln who have labored to create, in the words of John Y. Simon, "an alternate legend of Lincoln's happy marriage."[31]


In some ways, the most abused characters in this drama are Herndon's informants, most of whom gave their testimony on the subject of Abraham Lincoln in good faith and to the best of their ability. Although much of what is known about Lincoln's early life comes from these informants, Herndon's critics have been very hard on them as witnesses and as people. Angle and J. G. Randall are often condescending about the young Lincoln's unlettered neighbors and friends, and Donald delights in picturing them as willing collaborators with Herndon in fabricating a romance out of rumor, or as participants in a contest to stretch the truth about their old friend.[32] Informants whose information is approved are generally tolerated, but bearers of unwelcome testimony are singled out for harsher Page  [End Page 29] treatment. Angle, for example, in the face of Isaac Cogdal's testimony that Lincoln once admitted he had been in love with Ann Rutledge and had gone off the track at her death, disputed Cogdal's claim to be a friend of Lincoln's at all and dismissed him as "a mediocre lawyer."[33] The truth seems to be that Angle knew almost nothing about Cogdal, who turns out to have been an old friend and political associate from Lincoln's New Salem days.[34] Randall is equally distrustful of Cogdal's "effusive" testimony. Although he took the trouble to look into his background and reported that Cogdal was licensed as a lawyer, he suppressed the relevant information from the same source that it was Lincoln who encouraged and abetted Cogdal's study of the law.[35] The point is that Angle and Randall had no more reason to doubt Cogdal's testimony than that of many other witnesses they chose not to question. Their disposition to treat Isaac Cogdal as untruthful is clearly the result of their disinclination to accept what he had to say. It does Angle and Randall's cause no credit that their approach stands on its head the accepted practice of first establishing the unreliability of the witness in order to cast doubt on his or her testimony.

J. G. Randall's most pervasive contention is that the testimony of Herndon's informants is dubious because it is subject to the notorious fallibility of human memory. Even when presenting the recollections of witnesses he seems to respect, Randall qualifies: "The testimony of James Short, a close and true friend of Lincoln and of the Rutledges, deserves consideration if one has to deal with far-off rememberings." [36] When he encounters inconvenient testimony that seems to have every right to be believed, he reminds us that it is "dim and misty with the years."[37] And there is no doubt that this is a telling consideration. As Randall insists, all of Herndon's collected testimony is after the fact; it consists almost exclusively of the reminiscences of older people about what happened long ago.

It is sometimes maintained by an appeal to common experience that Herndon's informants could not have been expected to summon Page  [End Page 30] up obscure events from the distant past with anything like accuracy, much less historical reliability, and that Herndon was naive to have believed them. But there is a problem with such objections. They make it appear that Herndon asked his informants to recall obscure events, things they had not thought about or discussed with anyone for twenty-five or thirty years. That this is very far from the case can readily be surmised from the example of the people of Menard County, the area that has been called Herndon's "most fruitful source of information about Lincoln."[38] Lincoln was considered a remarkable man from the time of his first appearance in New Salem. As one of the neighborhood's stalwarts, Coleman Smoot, expressed it, "Not only did his wit, kindliness, and knowledge attract people, but his strange clothes and uncouth awkwardness advertised him, the shortness of his trousers causing particular remark and amusement. Soon the name 'Abe Lincoln' was a household word." [39] Although poor, in debt, and making his living by a motley assortment of work, Abraham Lincoln was nonetheless a successful politican and very much in the public eye well before he left New Salem in 1837. And after departing for Springfield, fewer than twenty-five miles away, he not only continued to rise as a politician, but he also remained active in the area as a lawyer in a time when ordinary citizens were frequently at law with each other and court sessions were important public events.

In these circumstances, Abraham Lincoln continued as a familiar presence to the people of Menard, even though many of them were Democrats and remained at odds with him politically. As he rose to prominence as a legislator, congressman, leading lawyer, senatorial candidate, a national celebrity, and finally president, they had frequent occasion to recall their own personal contacts with him and keep alive their memories of his early days in the neighborhood of New Salem. George Spears endeared himself to J. G. Randall for confessing, "At that time I had no idea of his [Lincoln's] ever being President, therefore I did not notice his course as close as I should of had." [40] But far from being typical, his remark among informants is almost unique. The experience of most seems to have been much more like that of Aunt Louisa Clary.

Mrs. Clary had been born in 1834 at Clary's Grove and, as a Page  [End Page 31]

 Coleman Smoot
Coleman Smoot
young girl, had lived for two years in New Salem shortly after Lincoln left. Her ability to remember the physical details and precise locations of buildings of the long-since-deserted village greatly impressed Thomas P. Reep and his fellow members of the Old Salem Lincoln League as they attempted to piece together an accurate picture of New Salem in Lincoln's time. Mr. Reep reported that he said to Aunt Louisa, "How in the world is it you can remember these things and locate these places so closely?" She replied, "When we went away from there I was a child eight years old, and it wasn't long after that until Lincoln began to be preeminent, and whenever they would talk about Lincoln, it would always recall Lincoln living there, and our folks knew about it. They talked about Lincoln having lived there seven or eight years, and I would think about New Salem. Every time I thought about it the picture would come back to my mind just about where all these places were, about where the road was, the buildings in regard to one another that were standing, and Page  [End Page 32]

 The home of George Spears, circa 1930.
The home of George Spears, circa 1930.
I would just get a picture again. In all these years my mind has kept the picture fresh by frequently having it recalled to me." [41] For many of Herndon's informants, and for much of their testimony about Lincoln as a young man, keeping the picture fresh by frequently having it recalled to them would seem a more apt characterization than Randall's "dim and misty with the years."

But was Herndon himself naive about the problems of memory and the accuracy of reminiscences and long-range recollections, as his critics often charge? In November of 1888, Herndon was reading proof on his biography, which was already set in type and would be published a few months hence. Writing to his collaborator, Jesse Weik, he carefully specified errors and corrections that still needed to be made. Here is what he wrote Weik about the account of his own first glimpse of Abraham Lincoln in 1832: "Be sure that Lincoln Came all the way up to Bogue's Mill. It seems to me that he did and that, I at that time, saw Lincoln, but be sure that I am right. The records [i.e., his letters and interviews, then in Weik's possession] Page  [End Page 33] will fix it — it has now been 56 years since I saw what now Seems to be truth to me. Try and get me right. If L Came up to Bogues mill I saw Lincoln & if he did not then I did not see him at Bogue's mill."[42]

What does this passage reveal? That Herndon, at the age of seventy, was losing his grip? That when it came right down to it, he was confused about this and probably many other matters as well? That even his own firsthand recollections of Lincoln were, at bottom, shaky and uncertain? The passage could perhaps be taken to suggest any of these, and in the present climate of opinion, contemporary students of Lincoln might be expected to embrace any or all with scarcely a second thought. But surely fairness to Herndon requires that we acknowledge something else: that this passage is clear and convincing evidence that Herndon cared deeply for historical accuracy, that he was keenly aware that there is a difference between what only seems to be and historical fact, that even his own most vivid memories of Lincoln could be subject to error, and that if there were ways to test them and they proved incompatible with more solid historical evidence, they would have to be sacrificed in the interest of truth.

It is evident that the Herndon who worried about the accuracy of his first glimpse of Abraham Lincoln is a virtual stranger to contemporary students and deserves to be much better known; that the rectitude and good faith of his informants generally has been unfairly discounted and deserves to be reconsidered; and that, as a consequence, the extensive body of material that Herndon collected and preserved is far more valuable than has been realized and deserves to be treated accordingly. It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that in great human endeavors there is frequently a hidden cost in the reckoning. Shelby Foote has said that Gettysburg was the price the Confederacy had to pay for having R. E. Lee. The overly severe and unfair treatment of Herndon and his Lincoln informants is part of the price Lincoln scholarship has had to pay for the great contributions of some of its finest historians, but it is never too late to redress the balance. Page  [End Page 34]


  1. Paul Angle, "Lincoln's First Love?" Bulletin (Lincoln Centennial Association), Dec. 1, 1927, 1. return to text
  2. Angle, "Lincoln's First Love?" 5. return to text
  3. That Angle could not have made a careful study even of the Lamon copies is evident from his misconceptions about how Herndon first heard the story and how and when he gathered his information. See Douglas L. Wilson, "Abraham Lincoln, Ann Rutledge, and the Evidence of Herndon's Informants," Civil War History 36 (Dec. 1990): 317–18. return to text
  4. J. G. Randall, "Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence," in Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945), 2: 321. return to text
  5. See Wilson, "Abraham Lincoln, Ann Rutledge, and the Evidence of Herndon's Informants," 318–23. return to text
  6. John Y. Simon, "Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 11 (1990): 13–33. return to text
  7. Randall, "Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence," 321. return to text
  8. I am grateful to John R. Sellers for assistance in consulting the Randall Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, and to David H. Donald for permission to examine them. return to text
  9. Louis A. Warren, "Herndon's Contribution to Lincoln Mythology," Indiana Magazine of History 41 (Sept. 1945): 221–44. return to text
  10. Louis A. Warren, Sifting the Herndon Sources (n.p.: Lincoln Fellowship of Southern California, 1948). return to text
  11. David Donald, Lincoln's Herndon: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, repr. New York: Da Capo, 1989), 347. return to text
  12. Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 198. return to text
  13. Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953); John J. Duff, A. Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1960). Apparently on the assumption that Herndon is acknowledged by Lincoln scholars to be a controversial source of information, Duff accuses Herndon of all manner of malfeasance. return to text
  14. Paul Simon, Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 80. return to text
  15. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982), 145–48. return to text
  16. Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), 88. return to text
  17. William H. Herndon to Jesse W. Weik, Jan. 1891, Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress, printed in The Hidden Lincoln: From the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon, ed. Emanuel Hertz (New York: Viking Press, 1938), 259. return to text
  18. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln, 88. return to text
  19. Jean Baker, "Commentary on 'Lincoln's Quest for Union,' " in The Historian's Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, ed. Gabor S. Boritt (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 244. return to text
  20. Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 259. It is interesting, given his strictures on Herndon's reliance on reminiscences, that Donald's most telling evidence for Herndon's drunkenness is John Hill's recollections twenty-five or thirty years after the fact. return to text
  21. Ibid., viii. return to text
  22. Ibid., 355. return to text
  23. Ibid., 196. return to text
  24. Louis A. Warren stated that "Most of the items in the collection of the Library of Congress appear in The Hidden Lincoln"; see his Lincoln's Youth: Indiana Years Seven to Twenty-one, 1816–1830 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1959), 274. The estimate of 8 percent is based on a preliminary survey of the letters and interviews by Rodney O. Davis and me as we edit them for publication. return to text
  25. Randall, Mary Lincoln, 36. return to text
  26. Ibid., 36, 40. return to text
  27. Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 303–4. return to text
  28. Herndon to Weik, Jan. 9, 1886, Herndon-Weik Collection, printed in Hidden Lincoln, ed. Hertz, 131. return to text
  29. Herndon to Weik, Jan. 16, 1886, Herndon-Weik Collection, ibid., 136. return to text
  30. Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 172. return to text
  31. Simon, "Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge," 33. return to text
  32. Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 186–87, 353. return to text
  33. Angle, "Lincoln's First Love?" 6. return to text
  34. See Wilson, "Abraham Lincoln, Ann Rutledge, and the Evidence of Herndon's Informants," 315–17. For information on Cogdal, see also Alice Keach Bone, Rock Creek: A Retrospect of One Hundred Years (n.p., n.d.), 66, and [R. D. Miller], History of Mason and Menard Counties (Chicago: O. L. Baskin, 1879), 749. return to text
  35. See Randall, "Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence," 2: 333, citing Miller, History of Mason and Menard Counties, 749. return to text
  36. Randall, "Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence," 330. return to text
  37. Ibid. return to text
  38. Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 184. return to text
  39. Quoted in Benjamin Thomas, Lincoln's New Salem (repr. Chicago: Americana House, 1961), 112. return to text
  40. Spears to Herndon, Nov. 3, 1866, Herndon-Weik Collection. return to text
  41. Clary's remarks are from an interview with Reep conducted by Joseph Booton, as printed in The New Salem Tradition, ed. Richard S. Taylor (Springfield: Illinois Department of Conservation, 1984), 321. I am grateful to Mr. Taylor for making this valuable compilation available. return to text
  42. Herndon to Weik, Nov. 10, 1888, Herndon-Weik Collection. Donald cites a portion of this passage in his biography, but only to illustrate the problem of evaluating a collaborative work. See Lincoln's Herndon, 349. return to text