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One thing that students of Abraham Lincoln are universally agreed on is that there was an antagonism between his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and his law partner, William H. Herndon. How can it be doubted, when Herndon referred to her with such epithets as "she wolf" and "the female wild cat of the age" and she angrily denounced him as "a dirty dog"? Herndon and Mary Todd Lincoln were very different people, and it seems unlikely that they would have been socially very compatible, let alone friends, under any circumstances, but there can be little doubt that they became antagonists because of their close personal relationships to Abraham Lincoln. This has led some biographers to see whatever enmity existed between them as being based on a kind of rivalry for Lincoln's attention.  Such characterizations are tantalizing, but Herndon's and Mary Todd Lincoln's feelings toward each other would be of little consequence were it not for one thing: that it was Herndon who compiled much of the information on which our knowledge of Lincoln's pre-presidential life depends. As a result, Herndon's information and opinions have assumed considerable weight in the scale of Lincoln biography, and the unflattering views he held on Lincoln's wife and his marriage raise the question of bias, of whether Herndon may have colored or falsified the picture to reinforce or confirm his own views. Page [End Page 1]
Before the appearance of David Herbert Donald's biography of Herndon in 1948, one finds little concern among Lincoln students that Herndon may have tampered unfairly with the behavior and reputation of Mary Todd Lincoln. Although a consensus had already formed among scholars that the incident reported in Herndon's biography in which Lincoln left Mary Todd standing at the altar probably never happened, he was not widely seen as a purveyor of misinformation and malice.  But as a result of Donald's superbly researched and influential biography, things have changed dramatically.  A recent statement chosen almost at random typifies the way this issue is nowadays perceived: "Herndon's biases included a hatred for Mary Lincoln, and he may have intentionally sought out respondents who would testify to a loveless Lincoln marriage." That Herndon hated Mary Todd Lincoln is currently a widely shared belief that has become axiomatic and is rarely questioned. It is something that self-respecting students of Lincoln's life are expected to know. Donald explained:
Donald's conclusion that neither ever forgot the "serpent" incident, which he seems to have been offered in 1948 as informed speculation, has been duly repeated ever since as established fact. But is it? Is there, in fact, good reason for thinking that this incident was the starting point of a lifelong antagonism? A careful reading of this passage in Herndon's biography, along with other evidence, raises doubts. Near the beginning of his biographical collaboration with Jesse W. Weik, Herndon wrote him almost daily, sketching out the central characters and basic plot lines of Lincoln's early life. In one of those letters he described the appearance on the Springfield scene of the Lexington belle, Mary Todd.
If it seems unlikely that Herndon regarded Mary's retort as grounds for resentment, at least we can be sure that he remembered the incident, which is more than we know about Mary. In the absence of evidence that the "serpent" comment actually marked the beginning of a mutual antagonism, the notion that it was must be downgraded from fact to doubtful speculation. This is significant because the "serpent" incident is the only piece of evidence on offer in support of the existence of a longstanding antagonism between the two. Donald himself forthrightly admits as much:
Donald adds a qualification, "But Mrs. Lincoln never invited her husband's partner to her house for a meal." But this often-repeated circumstance is somewhat misleading, as Donald's source—one of Herndon's topical sketches—clearly shows. In drafting biographical material for the use of his collaborator, Herndon wrote: "Mr. Stuart said this to me, that 'I have been at Lincoln's house a hundred times and never was asked to dine. In Washington Mr. Lincoln never asked about any body—says Judge Davis, says so and never asked Davis to dine with him' though Davis was frequently at his house. I can say the same thing and so can all persons who ever visited that house, except on special occasions." The point here is that if the experience of John T. Stuart, David Davis, and Herndon himself is indicative, the Lincolns did not socialize over dinner. While close friends such as these were often in the Lincoln home, they were never invited to dine, except on special occasions.
What all this tells us is that, whatever the character of Mary and Herndon's mutual antagonism, its longstanding nature, reaching far back to their first acquaintance, is a presumption, not a fact. And we must recognize that, as such, it is largely a backward projection from later developments. This matters in the present discussion because Donald's positing of a longstanding antagonism is the ultimate platform on which the prevailing view concerning Herndon's "hatred" of Mary rests. Ruth Painter Randall, for example, has no doubt whatever that "Herndon wanted to believe the worst about Mrs. Lincoln," and her first item in evidence (and most of the rest) is taken directly from Donald: "From the first meeting there had been a mutual dislike."  Some years later, the editors of Mary Todd Lincoln's letters concluded from Donald's account: "At a ball before her marriage he had told her, by way of clever compliment, that she danced with the ease of a serpent. She did not care for the comparison, said so, and from that moment on viewed Herndon with contempt." Not to be outdone, Stephen B. Oates gave the screw yet another turn: "Herndon could never come to socialize in the Lincoln home, because Mary had nothing but contempt for him. According to Herndon's side of the story, he'd met Mary at a ball and was so enthralled with her graceful Page [End Page 6] ways that he compared her to a serpent. He meant it as a compliment, but Mary disliked him in any case and took his remark as an outrageous and unforgivable insult."
Donald, of course, is not responsible for the fanciful conjectures that have been embroidered onto his speculations. More recently, in his own biography of Lincoln, Donald allowed that Herndon had a "dislike, verging on hatred" for Mary Todd Lincoln, and implied that it was, indeed, of long standing. But he did not gainsay his earlier characterization of the state of affairs that existed before 1866—"restrained, if distant, relations"—a characterization that seems hardly consistent with real hatred, on either side. Herndon's own reflection on the matter is actually quite generous: "To me she was always kind and respectful," he says of this period, "and in return I respect[ed] her: she had much to bear." If there was hatred between those two before 1866, it is incumbent upon us to say what the evidence is that it existed, as well as how and when it was displayed. This has yet to be done, and it needs to be emphasized that before 1866, in spite of widespread assumptions to the contrary, no factual basis for anything like hatred, on one side or the other, has ever been adduced.
What difference does it make when their clear differences in temperament and outlook ripened into animosity? It matters because it bears on the question raised earlier about bias. Donald alleged that the kind of testimony and information Herndon gathered for his biography in 1865 and 1866 was directly related to his antipathy for Mary, whom Donald characterized in this context as "his old enemy." Herndon, he said, "built up a collection of tales concerning Mrs. Lincoln's unfortunate temper" and "harped on cer- Page [End Page 7] tain episodes in the Lincoln story—tales of the President's domestic infelicity, for example, to the neglect of other, and perhaps more important points." At the time Donald made these charges, the materials on which they were based were largely inaccessible, but as they are now readily available, interested students can judge the matter for themselves.  There can be no doubt that Herndon believed Lincoln's marriage was unfortunate and that the anecdotes he collected tended to reinforce this idea. But if the implication is that Herndon unfairly loaded the dice against Mary in his investigations, I would certainly disagree, for it is hard to see that the stories Herndon collected, or his own view of Mary and the Lincoln marriage, differed materially from that of many of Lincoln's other close friends or, so far as we can gauge it, from that of Springfield generally. Paul M. Angle put the matter succinctly: "As to Lincoln's domestic difficulties, no fair-minded student can disregard what Herndon wrote. The supporting testimony of other contemporaries is too overwhelming."  What is important to emphasize here is that saying Herndon regarded Mary as his "old enemy" in 1866 amounts to stealing a march on the evidence, for it assumes what is yet to be proved.
It is not until late in 1866, after Herndon had collected the major share of his evidence, that we come to the first actual irruption of hostility. Herndon's collecting activities had been enormously productive, and by mid-November of 1866 the total number of his letters, interviews, and statements about Lincoln collected since beginning work in May the previous year was more than four hundred. One of his most important interviews, taken in September 1866, had been with none other than Mary Todd Lincoln. He had written to her son Robert, requesting an interview, and Mary herself had responded with a very cordial letter, inviting Herndon to meet her in Springfield.
Two months later, on November 16, Herndon delivered his fourth public lecture on his former law partner, revealing for the first time, in what was, even for him, baroque and extravagant language, the story of Lincoln's love for Ann Rutledge. Herndon's revelations, and his highly conjectural interpretation of the episode's permanent effect on Lincoln, seemed to many observers, then and later, as heedlessly insensitive and deliberately hurtful. Isaac Phillips's complaint against Herndon was probably typical: "He was not a scrupulous man, and there is ample evidence in everything he wrote that he was a man of a coarse mind—a mind of the character that could not perceive those nice feelings and tastes that Page [End Page 9] would be outraged by his disclosures.... A decent man would have been careful on these points."  Even those who harbored no love for Mary Todd Lincoln probably reasoned that, in such a case, decency trumps history, regardless of the biographer's intentions.
But it is Herndon's intentions that concern us here. He thought he had discovered a previously unknown but critically important chapter in Lincoln's life, his tragic love affair with Ann Rutledge. This was an incident whose true import Herndon believed could only be grasped if one could recapture the context, by which he meant the natural setting, the pioneer culture, and the particular personal circumstances in which it took place. As he told Isaac N. Arnold at the time, the lecture was "an attempt to show the power & influence of mind—scenary—flowers, and mind on mind—Lincoln's mind." This is why most of the lecture—about eighty percent of it—has nothing to do with the love affair per se but is given over to detailed descriptions of the natural setting and the pioneer culture of New Salem.
Herndon, of course, knew that he was treading on dangerous ground and inviting hostility in delivering this lecture, and hostility he certainly got. Because he had had it printed in advance as a broadside, it was rapidly reprinted in newspapers throughout the country, where the reaction was far from favorable. As Herndon certainly realized, he was violating accepted standards of taste and decorum just by disclosing such intimate matters as Lincoln's young love affair and his troubled bereavement. He must surely have been aware that by even suggesting, as he did, that Lincoln never again loved another woman as he had loved Ann Rutledge, he would deeply offend Mary Todd Lincoln and members of her family. What he may not have been fully prepared for was the charge that he had deliberately betrayed the friend and partner he revered.
Those charges came soon enough, and none with more force than those from Dr. James Smith, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield. In a letter to Herndon that Smith had widely published in newspapers, he spelled out Herndon's offenses:
Herndon had not only offended his public and Lincoln's family, he had, as the Lincolns well knew, also recklessly overstepped his own knowledge in saying that Lincoln "never addressed another woman, in my opinion, 'yours affectionately.'" It is not known when Mary Todd Lincoln learned of Herndon's lecture, but her son Robert may have seen it first. Within a few days of the lecture he wrote to his father's executor, Supreme Court Justice David Davis: "Mr. William H. Herndon is making an ass of himself." He continued:
Mary's first recorded reaction to what she considered Herndon's act of perfidy is in a letter of March 4, 1867, to Judge Davis, but it was apparently not her first letter to him on the subject:
Judge Davis seems to have attempted to ease her mind by playing down the importance of such an early romance as Lincoln's with Ann Rutledge, but Mary Todd Lincoln had her own ideas: "As you justly remark, each & every one has had, a little romance in their early days—but as my husband was truth itself, and as he always assured me, he had cared for no one but myself, the false W. H. (au contraire) I shall assuredly remain firm in my conviction—that Ann Rutledge, is a myth—." In a postscript she added: "I would not believe an assertion of Herndon's if he would take a thousand oaths, upon the Bible—."
Given the provocation and the well-known volatility of Mary Todd Lincoln's temperament, this was a reasonably moderate response, but two days later she wrote again in a more animated state:
But this is not the side of the equation that most concerns us. Up to the time of the Ann Rutledge lecture, while Mary Todd Lincoln no doubt had serious misgivings about her husband's law partner, she had no known reason to hate him. Now she did, to be sure, but the question is, did Herndon have a prior reason to hate her? Certainly he had for a long time thought Lincoln's marriage unfortunate and a major source of unhappiness in Lincoln's life, which was doubtless why he dropped the offending remark in his discussion of Lincoln's melancholy. But this was hardly a reason Page [End Page 13] to hate his wife, and nothing suggests that Herndon's fleeting and indirect reference to Lincoln's marriage was done out of hatred. In his own mind, he probably thought he was exercising restraint, as when he struggled in his second lecture to talk about Lincoln's life "domestically." In a section with this subtitle, he first wrote, "Home would have been to him Heaven and his wife and little ones angels but it ordained otherwise," then struck this out. Later he wrote: "O what a domestic life—what a domestic history It is as terrible as death and as gloomy as the grave! Who shall write it Oh—policy—well," then struck that out. At the end of this section, realizing he had talked completely around the problem at the center, having said nothing whatever about Lincoln's wife, Herndon concluded: "I wish it were otherwise. I would change & alter here if I could this domestic touch. I cannot lie and I cannot escape his domestic life. It would be Hamlet played with Hamlet left out—Hamlet ignored."
As this suggests, Herndon knew he was making a negative and unwelcome statement even in dodging the issue, but he thought it was something he was obligated to address. Herndon firmly believed, along with a number of Lincoln's closest friends, that Lincoln's unhappy marriage was a crucial factor in his becoming president. But Herndon differed from the others in undertaking to write Lincoln's biography, and in his belief that important factors in a great hero's career were "necessary truths," about which a conscientious biographer could not remain silent. A corollary to this doctrine was the belief that it was important that "necessary truths," particularly when they relate to problematical circumstances in the lives of great men, be first reported sympathetically by their friends, in order to forestall and offset the inevitable constructions that would be put on these same circumstances by their critics and enemies. I have described Herndon's doctrine of "necessary truth," its corollary, and its consequences elsewhere. Here it will perhaps suffice to say that Herndon's correspondence makes it clear that he was in great earnest about having to face up to "necessary truths," and the Ann Rutledge lecture in November 1866 Page [End Page 14] was his first attempt to implement his theory and its corollary about timely and sympathetic public disclosure.
It was, of course, a disaster. The adoring public, which had already elevated the martyred president to something like sainthood, was almost as shocked by Herndon's revelations and interpretations as the Lincoln family. Far from being grateful to Herndon for seeking out this unknown chapter in Lincoln's early life, showing how it related to and explained his temporary mental derangement and near atheism in New Salem, the public recoiled at his mentioning these unwelcome subjects at all. While the Ann Rutledge story would eventually find a sympathetic audience with the idolizing public, Herndon's bizarre presentation of so delicate a subject in 1866 probably led many to hope or believe, with Mary Todd Lincoln, that it was merely a figment of Herndon's imagination.
Herndon refused to respond to the criticism publicly, but in his correspondence he defended his theory of "necessary truth" and his new disclosures. Isaac Arnold, a Chicago lawyer and congressman who was composing a life of Lincoln, wrote immediately to Herndon, who responded with a long list of intimate details from Lincoln's early life that the public (and Arnold) was unaware of, one of which concerned Mary.
Herndon thought so well of his explanation of these matters to Arnold that he retained a copy of his letter and sent one a few days later to his young Philadelphia confidant, Charles H. Hart, a letter in which he acknowledges so directly what the result of his Ann Rutledge lecture had been on Mary Todd Lincoln that it may indicate she had written him about it.
We may dispute the adequacy of Herndon's theory of the Lincoln marriage given here to Arnold and Hart, but none of it goes to suggest that Herndon hated Mary Todd Lincoln or that his real intention was, as had been urged, to get back at her. On the contrary, he argued at the time that his Ann Rutledge disclosures— Page [End Page 16] that Lincoln was traumatized by the loss of an earlier love—were necessary to lay the groundwork for a proper understanding of Lincoln's unhappy marriage, and that its unhappy character was not, as the public believed, solely the fault of Mary Todd Lincoln.
One may, of course, doubt the sincerity of Herndon's protestations about the nature of his intentions and conjecture with Mrs. Randall that "Herndon hated Mrs. Lincoln, but in his own self-justifying mind he considered that, in bringing out his deductions from the supposed romance to explain the 'unhappy' marriage, he was doing justice to her."  But this requires the kind of "mud instinct" and "dog sagacity" about what went on in Herndon's mind that Mrs. Randall so deplores in Herndon himself. Donald, on the other hand, allows that Herndon's motive was not malicious. "His ideas may have been an unconscious rationalization of his dislike for Mary Lincoln, but there is no reason to think him insincere in believing that the Lincoln-Rutledge romance must be disclosed by a friend of the President in order to prevent hostile revelation at some later day." Herndon's determination to act on his theory, regardless of short-term consequences, opens him to the charge of callousness and insensitivity, but hatred for Mary Todd Lincoln and the wish to do her injury is something else.
Herndon's excuse to use hard words about Mary Todd Lincoln would eventually come. Nearly seven years later, in 1873, the Reverend James Reed of Springfield delivered a lecture on Abraham Lincoln's religion, "The Later Life and Religious Sentiments of Abraham Lincoln." The lecture was in reaction to Ward Hill Lamon's 1872 biography, which gave much attention to Lincoln's "infidelity" as a young man on the basis of evidence collected by Herndon, and Reed sought to reclaim, at least for his later life, Lincoln's reputation as a Christian. Herndon was persuaded by his wife and others to reply to Reed, and on December 12, 1873, he delivered a public lecture titled "Lincoln's Religion." His most persuasive evidence that Lincoln was not a believer in Christian doctrines and that his religious views did not change while he lived in Springfield was a passage from his interview with Mary Todd Lincoln, in which he reported her as saying:
Here it seems likely that Herndon had little or no idea that Mary Todd Lincoln would take offense at his use of her testimony, for he said nothing disrespectful, and he was careful to portray her quite favorably: "Mrs. Lincoln is a close observer, a woman of intellect, a good judge of human nature and knew her husband thoroughly inside and outside."  What Herndon had not foreseen was that his lecture, which was printed the next day in full and widely circulated, created a firestorm of protest, not only in Illinois but around the country. As Donald reports, the Republican press, which saw anything tending to lower Lincoln's stature as a political liability, became actively aroused and "was uniformly hostile," loudly proclaiming Herndon a "Judas in Springfield."  Donald believed that, in view of her testimony's damning import, Mary had been "prevailed upon to denounce Herndon and repudiate the interview in which she had declared that Lincoln 'was not a technical Christian.'" Her own letter, however, written a few days after the lecture and addressed to her cousin John T. Stuart, appears entirely voluntary.
The next day she wrote Stuart again: "Every word, Mr Herndon has stated as coming from me in a conversation held some years ago, is utterly false & has been entirely perverted. I hope you will kindly in my name, to parties interested pronounce it so." In her wrought-up condition, she returned to the note of revenge she had struck earlier with Judge Davis. "Cousin John, how can you all—the true friends of my dear good husband, allow such a wretched creature in your midst—A worse man I believe, had never lived. Pardon these lengthy notes, but let every one know, what false words he has attributed to poor unhappy me." Three days later, the Springfield Republican newspaper announced triumphantly that Mrs. Lincoln had denied "unequivocally that she had the conversation with Mr. Herndon, as stated by him."
This claim, of course, went well beyond what Mary Todd Lincoln had written to Stuart, and Herndon, having apparently been shown the Stuart letter, was too good a lawyer not to know how to handle such contradictory statements. He composed a long public letter that appeared in several newspapers and was printed as a broadside entitled "Mrs. Lincoln's Denial, and What She Says." In the letter, he explained the background of the matter and described his call on Mrs. Lincoln at the St. Nicholas Hotel. She at first demurred, according to Herndon, but "At my special request, and after some argument, she at least consented to give me a brief history of her life." Herndon then printed in full his writeup of the interview. He next pointed out that while it had been "telegraphed all over the country that no conversation ever took place," Mary nonetheless, "in the Stuart letter, expressly admits a conversation, and says that Mr. Stuart came into the room while I was taking down the substance of the conversation."
Having thus put his adversary on the horns of a dilemma, he turned to the allegation that his statements were false and perverted, noting that in this charge, "Her language is general and not Page [End Page 19] specific." As a means of getting at what is actually false and perverted in his statement, he poses the issues as questions, which he does with devastating effect:
Mary Todd Lincoln's mental health at this time was probably deteriorating and her behavior would soon force her son, on the advice of John T. Stuart and others, to have her committed. Her reaction to Herndon's public letter is probably another indication of this condition, for she immediately wrote Stuart to renew her denials.
Herndon had been firm in his public letter, as his honesty had been assailed and the Republican press had accused him of betraying his partner and friend. Nonetheless, he had deliberately kept his temper and avoided insulting language. Donald is convinced that Mary's accusation "was the signal for Herndon to loose all his long stored-up hatred for Mary Lincoln," whom Donald characterizes as the "most detested of his enemies."  But the existence of a long stored-up hatred still awaits proof, and Herndon's response simply does not bear the stamp of hatred, even though he regarded himself as the offended party. This was a circumstance noted at the time by his Springfield friends. William Jayne wrote to congratulate him, saying "you do not like a clod hopper call her a d—d old liar & hussey—but [instead acted] like a courtly gentleman & lawyer...."
Much has been made by Herndon's critics of the nasty things he later said about Mary Todd Lincoln. To prove Herndon's "violent hatred" of Mary, for example, Mrs. Randall simply pointed to Donald's finding that "since 1874 there had been in Herndon's mind no question of charity; he believed anything about Lincoln's wife that was bad. Some of his comments were unprintable." Donald doesn't specify which remarks were unprintable, but the epithets he cites are these: "she wolf of this section," "soured ... gross ... material—avaricious—insolent," "a tigress," "like the tooth ake—kept one awake night and day," "terribly aristocratic ... and haughty," "as cold as a chunk of ice," and "the female wild cat of the age."
These examples of "hateful" language are certainly colorful and consistently negative. But as evidence of real hatred, they seem somewhat short of the mark. That Herndon's feelings towards Mary were decidedly mixed is suggested by the letters themselves. In spite of their being cited to prove that, after the lecture flap in 1874, Herndon had no charity for Mary, several of the letters from which these epithets are taken, all addressed to his collaborator Page [End Page 21] Jesse W. Weik, contain passages that qualify these unflattering epithets and call Herndon's supposed hatred and lack of charity into question.
In a letter in which Herndon called Mary "soured ... gross ... material—avaricious—insolent," he also wrote, "This woman was once a brilliant one, but what a sad sight to see her in any year after 1862 and Especially a year or so before she died." Lincoln, he wrote in another letter, "was not a judge of human nature ... Mrs. Lincoln used to help Lincoln from being imposed upon: he frequently said to her—What is your opinion of this man...."  In the same letter, Herndon wrote: "Mrs Lincoln was a stimulant to Lincoln in a good sense: she was always urging him to look up—struggle—conquer.... she was ambitious and helped Lincoln along in her own providential way, while she crushed his spirit in an other way: she was like the tooth ake—kept one awake night and day."  "She was a terrible woman," he allowed in another letter, "but I must give her credit for a keen insight into men and things. Had hell not got into her neck she would have led society anywhere: she was a highly cultured woman—witty—dashing—pleasant. and a lady, but hell got in her neck, which I will explain to the world sometime, if I live. This will be a curious history. When all is known the world will divide between Mr Lincoln & Mrs Lincoln its censure as I believe." The final example shows particularly well how the qualified meanings of epithets can be lost if cited in isolation: "I know that Mrs Lincoln acted badly, but hold your opinion for a while. 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." 
The failure to acknowledge such positive and even sympathetic comments deprives Herndon of the credit he is due for attempting to balance, in some degree, his accounts and descriptions of a woman he did not very much admire. The examples given above are, as indicated, all taken from the letters from which unfavorable epithets were culled to show his supposed hatred and lack of charity for Mary Todd Lincoln, but in many other letters of this period Page [End Page 22] he repeatedly tried to get his correspondents to understand Mary's situation. Years after her death, in a letter to a trusted correspondent, former U. S. Senator Joseph S. Fowler, he speculated on what he thought may have been a major cause of Mrs. Lincoln's trouble: "Lincoln should never have married Mary Todd, ambitious to lead and Control Society: she was a woman of fine intellect—quick witted—sarcastic—aristocratic—refined. In fact she once was a lady, but unfortunately she fell from that high position, as I think, from the Excessive use of morphine."  Herndon's speculation may well have been prompted by his own wife's reported addiction to opium,  and he seems not to have ever mentioned this suspicion to his collaborator, or to anyone else that I am aware of. In this letter, he was clearly attempting to balance the publicly accepted picture of Mary Todd Lincoln, which was highly unfavorable.
The account of Mary Todd Lincoln in Herndon's 1889 biography is not extensive and, in the main, not highly prejudicial. There is, at the outset, a reference to the "tempestuous chapters of his married life," and we are told: "It is a curious history, and the facts, long chained down, are gradually coming to the surface. When all is at last known, the world I believe will divide its censure between Lincoln and his wife."  The section where Mary is featured most Page [End Page 23] extensively tells not about the couple's marriage but about their troubled courtship. Lincoln is represented in this ordeal as an anguished suitor and very unwilling bridegroom, but the fault for all this is by no means laid exclusively at the feet of Mary Todd. A single paragraph, which includes Herndon's theory of Mary's supposed revenge, reports that the subsequent marriage was not happy, and ends with this:
In a later chapter that attempts to "take a nearer and more personal view" of Abraham Lincoln, Herndon devotes several pages to his partner's domestic life, and the picture is not happy. Here Mary's difficulties with her husband, her servants, and others are outlined, mostly through anecdotes and the testimony of family and friends. Thus it is Mary's half-sister who says that "she raised 'merry war' because he persisted in using his own knife in the butter, instead of the silver-handled one intended for that purpose." It is Judge David Davis who is quoted as saying "as a general rule, when all the lawyers of a Saturday evening would go home and see their families and friends, Lincoln would find some excuse and refuse to go. We said nothing, but it seemed to us all he was not domestically happy."  A letter from Lincoln to a newspaper editor is quoted to show that Lincoln, by his own admission, spoke "evasively" to his wife, rather than admit that he was responsible for subscribing to a newspaper she did not approve of.  Herndon plainly indicates that Lincoln was unhappy in his home life and often stayed away from home on that account, and he declares that, contrary to what some may insist, his account is not "too highly colored." But he concludes by emphasizing, as he did often in his own letters, that Mary Todd Lincoln was not solely responsible for Page [End Page 24] these difficulties. "In her domestic troubles I have always sympathized with Mrs. Lincoln. The world does not know what she bore, or how ill-adapted she was to bear it."
Herndon's intention in discussing Mary Todd Lincoln and the Lincoln marriage was to report on an important aspect of his subject's life, but it cannot be said that he presented a balanced picture. As Donald has pointed out,
Did Mary Todd Lincoln hate William Henry Herndon? The evidence suggests that she did with what appeared to her and many others to be good reason, but only after he published his offending Ann Rutledge lecture in November 1866. Did Herndon hate his partner's wife, and more importantly, did he frame, out of malice, a false and unfavorable picture of her? The current view that he did both, as I have tried to show, needs to be reconsidered, for it is almost entirely presumptive and is not based on established facts. Moreover, it often takes a form that verges on circularity: How do we know that Herndon hated Mary? Because he was out to get her. How do we know he was out to get her? Because he hated her. There is no factual basis for thinking that Herndon was openly or secretly hostile toward Mary Todd Lincoln prior to 1866, or vice versa, and no evidence to contradict his claim that she was always kind to him and that he, in turn, respected her. The evidence of his letters that refer to her, almost all written after Lincoln's death, suggests that while he often faulted her for her aristocratic ways and violent temper and that he believed Lincoln's home life was a Page [End Page 25] "domestic hell," his mature view of her was complicated and heavily qualified, conceding to her many good qualities and valuable contributions. In spite of his reputation as her sworn enemy who in later years engaged her in "open warfare," a consistent theme in Herndon's correspondence from 1866 on is that Mary Todd Lincoln had been unfairly condemned as the sole source of difficulty in the Lincoln marriage, and that Lincoln, who was not an attentive and helpful husband, deserved a share of the blame. Herndon believed that they had married for the wrong reasons—she to land a successful politician and he to preserve his honor—and that this doomed their marriage. He further believed that she had changed over time—for the worse. They were not bad people, but they had a bad marriage. This caused Lincoln to be unhappy in his home life and Mary to sometimes behave as "the female wild cat of the age." In 1866, he had twice used a phrase that captures the essence of it: "what I know and shall tell only ennobles both—that is to say it will show that Mrs L has had cause to suffer, and be almost crazed, while Lincoln self sacrificed himself rather than to be charged with dishonor."  Page [End Page 26]
- William H. Herndon (WHH) to Jesse W. Weik, Jan. 16, 1886, Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress (hereafter cited as H-W). Mary Todd Lincoln (MTL) to David Davis, Mar. 6, , Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, ed. Justin G. Turner and Linda Leavitt Turner (New York: Knopf, 1972), 416 (hereafter cited as Turner & Turner).
- See Turner and Turner, 33. See also Charles B. Strozier, who speaks of "the triangular relationship of Lincoln, Mary, and Herndon," and who says that Lincoln's wife and his law partner, "like children in a situation of intense sibling rivalry, detested each other." Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 80, 81. See also David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 160, 401.
- There are, of course, some harbingers of Donald's view. See, for example, Ida B. Tarbell's review of Emanuel Hertz's The Hidden Lincoln in New York Times Book Review (Feb. 13, 1938) charging that Herndon "left no trace of kindness in the picture he drew of her [Mary Todd Lincoln] to Mr. Weik. He needed that picture for his thesis [i.e., his "theory of Lincoln's melancholy."].
- Donald, Lincoln's Herndon: A Biography (1948; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1989). In the discussion that follows, I often differ with Prof. Donald, but I wish to acknowledge that, like all who study Herndon, I am deeply in his debt. Both his doctoral dissertation (Herndon: Lincoln's Law Partner (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1946) and the published biography that emerged from it are models of skill and resourcefulness in research, which have enabled and illuminated all subsequent studies.
- Harold Holzer, review of Herndon's Informants, Journal of Illinois History 1 (Winter 1998): 136–37.
- Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 188.
- See notes 10, 11, and 12 below.
- WHH to Jesse W. Weik, Jan. 16, 1886, H-W.
- William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, 3 vols. (Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1889), 2:209; in Herndon's Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1942), 166.
- Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 189.
- "Lincolns Domestic Life," H-W.
- Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953), 37.
- Turner & Turner, 33.
- Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 74.
- Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 160.
- WHH to Joseph S. Fowler, Nov. 3, 1888, Ethan Allen Hitchcock Papers, Box 1, Library of Congress. I have here amended Herndon's "respect" to the past tense, which seems to be what he intended.
- Donald says that Mary Todd Lincoln snubbed Herndon during his only trip to the Lincoln White House and that he was "bitterly resentful," but Donald cites no evidence beyond a reference to Mrs. Lincoln in one of Herndon's letters as "a very curious—excentric—wicked woman" (Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 153). This would certainly suggest that Herndon had credited the many stories making the rounds when he visited Washington about Mrs. Lincoln's improper behavior with Henry Wycoff, but how it would prove that Herndon was snubbed or that he was "bitterly resentful" is not evident.
- Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 188, 189, 196.
- See Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), (hereafter cited as Herndon's Informants).
- "Editor's Preface," in Herndon's Life of Lincoln, xliv.
- This figure reflects dated items in the Herndon archive from May 1865 to mid-November and one-half the undated items known to have been collected no later than November 30, 1866.
- MTL to WHH, Aug. 28, , Herndon's Informants, 326. MTL is confused about the date; this letter was written in 1866, but Sept. 4 was a Tuesday.
- "Mrs. Lincoln's Denial, and What She Says," printed broadside, Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield.
- Mary Todd Lincoln (WHH interview), [Sept. 1866], Herndon's Informants, 359–60.
- Isaac N. Phillips to James R. B. Van Cleave, Apr. 26, 1909, typescript, Abraham Lincoln Association Papers, Illinois State Historical Library.
- WHH to Isaac N. Arnold, Nov. 30, 1866, H-W; copy made by WHH's copyist, John G. Springer.
- Dr. James Smith to WHH, Jan. 24, 1867, Herndon's Informants, 547.
- Although very few letters from Abraham Lincoln to his wife are known, some are signed "Affectionately."
- Robert Todd Lincoln to David Davis, Nov. 19, 1866. Text interpolated from citations in John F. Goff, Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in his Own Right (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969), 84, and Willard L. King, Lincoln's Manager: David Davis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 239.
- WHH to Jesse W. Weik, Dec. 1, 1888, H-W. The pages of this letter are out of order in the microfilm edition (Exp. IV:2410–13, 2322–25).
- Robert Todd Lincoln to David Davis, Dec. 8, 1866, in Thomas F. Schwartz, "'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 (Winter 1993): 37.
- Robert Todd Lincoln to John G. Nicolay, Dec. 16, 1866, Ibid., 39.
- MTL to David Davis, Mar. 4, 1867, Turner & Turner, 414.
- WHH, "Analysis of the Character & Mind of Abm Lincoln," manuscript of WHH's first lecture on Lincoln, Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. The lecture was delivered Dec. 12, 1865, in Springfield, Ill.
- MTL to David Davis, Mar. 4, 1867, Turner & Turner, 414–15.
- MTL to David Davis, Mar. 6, 1867, Ibid., 415–16.
- WHH, "Analysis of the Character of Abm Lincoln," manuscript of WHH's second Lincoln lecture, Huntington Library. The lecture was delivered Dec. 26, 1865, in Springfield, Ill.
- See Douglas L. Wilson, "William H. Herndon and the 'Necessary Truth,'" in Lincoln before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 37–52.
- See Joshua F. Speed (WHH interview), [1865–66], Herndon's Informants, 474–75, 477. See also, Douglas L. Wilson, Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 220ff.
- WHH to Isaac N. Arnold, Nov. 20, 1866, copy enclosed in WHH to Charles H. Hart, Nov. 26, 1866, Hart Papers, Huntington Library (hereafter cited as Hart Papers).
- WHH to Charles H. Hart, Nov. 26, 1866, Hart Papers.
- Ibid., Dec. 12, 1866.
- See Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 188–91.
- Randall, Mary Lincoln, 404.
- Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 220
- WHH, "Lincoln's Religion," Illinois State Register, Dec., 1873.
- Newspaper headline cited in Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 279.
- Ibid. As with all Herndon's interview reports, the language here must be taken as representative, not necessarily literal. There is evidence that "technical Christian" was one of Herndon's own terms, by which he meant someone who openly embraced Christian dogma. Even though its use here may have accurately reflected her meaning, Mrs. Lincoln may well have been justified in protesting that "technical Christian" was not her language.
- MTL to John T. Stuart, Dec. 15, 1873, Turner & Turner, 603.
- For the qualification "spitefully dismissive," I am indebted to my colleague, Rodney O. Davis.
- MTL to John T. Stuart, Dec. 15, 1873, Turner & Turner, 603.
- Illinois State Journal, Dec. 19, 1873, quoted in Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 280.
- According to Donald, Herndon's long letter, dated Jan. 12, 1873, was first printed in the Illinois State Register on Jan. 14 and in other papers soon thereafter (Lincoln's Herndon, 281n). For the broadside, which is the source of the text followed here, see the copy in the Herndon-Weik Collection. All quotations are from this copy.
- MTL to John T. Stuart, Jan. 20, 1874, Turner & Turner, 605.
- Ibid., 606.
- Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 280.
- Quoted in Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 281.
- Randall, Mary Lincoln, 38.
- Ibid., 303.
- Ibid., 303–4. The letters from which the quoted epithets are taken are WHH to JWW, Dec. 1, 1885, Jan. 8, 12, 15, 16, 1886, H-W.
- WHH to JWW, Jan. 8, 1886, H-W.
- Ibid., Jan. 12, 1886.
- Ibid., Jan. 16, 1886.
- Ibid. It should be noted that the epithets "she wolf" and "wild cat" present here were not among those cited by Donald.
- WHH to Joseph S. Fowler, Nov. 3, 1888, Ethan Allen Hitchcock Papers, Box 1.
- Caroline Healey Dall, who stayed in Herndon's home in October 1866, wrote in her journal: "Nat the oldest son ... explained the cloud hanging over Herndon's unhappy second wife.... He says she has always taken opium and this is the result—and the reason why the family has lost their status." Dall Papers, Bryn Mawr College Library, Bryn Mawr, Pa. The reader should note that this portion of Dall's journal was reconstructed from her notes 30 years later and contains many known errors.
- WHH to Joseph S. Fowler, Nov. 3, 1888, Ethan Allen Hitchcock Papers, Box 1.
- Herndon's Lincoln, 2:205–06; Herndon's Life of Lincoln [ed. Angle], 163.
- Herndon's Lincoln, 2:230; Herndon's Life of Lincoln, 182.
- Herndon's Lincoln, 3:427; Herndon's Life of Lincoln, 345.
- Herndon's Lincoln, 3:425; Herndon's Life of Lincoln, 344.
- Herndon's Lincoln, 3:429; Herndon's Life of Lincoln, 347.
- Herndon's Lincoln, 3:433–34; Herndon's Life of Lincoln, 350.
- Donald, Lincoln's Herndon, 359.
- David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), 43.
- WHH to Charles H. Hart, Dec. 12, 1866, Hart Papers.