William H. Herndon: "was about five feet nine inches in height and well proportioned; his movements were swift; he was a rapid thinker, writer and speaker, and usually reached his conclusions quickly and expressed them forcibly and positively," wrote Charles Zane, who became Herndon's law partner after the Civil War. "His clients usually went away perfectly satisfied with his advice. He examined witnesses rapidly, and was not unfair, persistent, or tedious. He was always courteous and respectful to the court, and to this professional brethren. He was popular as a man, as a lawyer, and as a public speaker. It was easy to follow the thread of his argument. He was interesting and always secured the attention of his hearers. He was not always sufficiently careful as to his premises and his data. In this he was unlike his famous partner."1
Another contemporary, Harvey Lee Ross, reflected on why in 1841 Mr. Lincoln chose Herndon to became his third Springfield law partner when Herndon was just 23: "Bill's father had been a friend to Lincoln for a great many years and was a very influential man in Sangamon county. He had always helped Lincoln in every way, and it was in payment for this kindness that Lincoln took his son in his office. It was a parallel case with that of Bill Berry, who Lincoln took in as a partner in his New Salem store. Both fathers wanted their sons in partnership with an honest man." Ross thought that Mr. Lincoln's experience with partners who sought public office led him to seek a partner who had "showed no disposition to run into politics."2 Both of Lincoln's previous partners - John Todd Stuart and Stephen T. Logan - had been older and more experienced.
Mr. Lincoln told Herndon "that he took Herndon in partnership on the supposition that he was not much of an advocate, but that he would prove to be a systematic office lawyer; but it transpired, contrary to his supposition, that Herndon was an excellent lawyer in the courts and as poor as himself in the office," recalled Henry C. Whitney.3 Contemporary I.M. Short wrote that Herndon "was always honest, sincere and loyal, and Lincoln never had cause to regret the business arrangement he that day went into. Lincoln took him in on equal terms with himself financially, the gains of their earnings being divided equally between them."4
Still, they were a study in contrasts. Douglas L. Wilson wrote: "William H. Herndon was very different from his partner. Outgoing and exuberant by nature, he was as communicative and unbuttoned as Abraham Lincoln was reserved and self-restrained."5 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: "Lincoln viewed Herndon as a surrogate son, a role for which the young man was well suited."6 Historian David H. Donald wrote: "The two partners were almost exact opposites in temperament. Despite a deep poetic streak, Lincoln's mind was cooly logical, and he longed for the day when 'reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason,' would rule the world. Herndon was intuitive; he fancied that he could 'see to the gizzard of things' and could predict the future because he felt it in his bones."7
"Herndon was definitely Lincoln's junior partner, and in ways large and small was constantly reminded of it," wrote historian Charles B. Strozier. "Lincoln valued Herndon's loyalty ('I expect everyone to desert me except Billy' he said after losing to Stephen A. Douglas in 1858), while he also kept his partner in his place. Lincoln would sit back in his chair and say, 'Billy, you're too rampant and spontaneous.' Lincoln mocked Herndon's wide, if somewhat superficial, reading and seldom took his advice on anything. He even seemed at times to go out of his way to put Herndon down."8 David H. Donald, who researched biographies of both men, wrote: "Herndon idealized his partner. He not merely felt grateful to Lincoln; he considered him his mentor, an older man who was a friendly, safe counselor. A man of extremes - indeed, a man who sometimes fell off the edge - Herndon found a steadying influence in his relationship with Lincoln. 'He was,' Herndon explained, 'the great big man of our firm and I was the little one. The little one looked naturally up to the big one.'"9
Like Lincoln, Herndon came from a Kentucky family, but it was better off financially and Herndon had a better education. But Herndon was not accepted into better Springfield society - in part because he occasionally drank far too much. Herndon's collaborator, Jesse W. Weik, wrote: "It cannot be denied that he was conversant with the latter's bibulous and unfortunate habits. Although Herndon was able if not more or less brilliant, Lincoln knew that he was headed downhill, and yet there is no evidence that he sought to restrain him or even criticized him for his moral laxity. Advice and admonition from Lincoln might have been efficacious in Herndon's reformation; it undoubtedly would have steadied him, but often though he yielded to temptation and fell from grace Lincoln said nothing. Instead of chiding and repelling him as a mark of his disapproval of his conduct, Lincoln seemed to cling to him all the closer. He was ten years older than Herndon and knew that the latter looked up to and believed in him; he also had due regard for Herndon's ability. On the whole, therefore, had he made the proper effort, it would seem as if he might have saved him."10
According to Springfield businessman John Bunn, "Mr Herndon belonged to a very radical pro-slavery Democratic family. His father sent him to Illinois College at Jacksonville, where he imbibed some of the anti-slavery principals held by the New England people who were in charge of that Institution. This fact greatly enraged his father, Archer G. Herndon, who took him away from College and practically turned him adrift. At this period, he was trying to make his own way, and Joshua Speed is said to have asked Mr. Lincoln to take Herndon into partnership with him. Mr. Lincoln did so out of sympathy for Herndon because of his straitened circumstances and the persecution which he was suffering at the hands of his family because of his anti-slavery views. Mr. Herndon occupied no social position in Springfield society such as Mr. Lincoln did. Dr. William Jayne used to say that Mrs. Lincoln would not have him in her house. Mr. Herndon's habits prior to 1860 were none of the best and not long after Mr. Lincoln went to Washington Mr. Herndon went there for the purpose of seeking some high diplomatic position (Tradition says that he asked to be sent as Ambassador to the Court of St. James) and finally wanted some position of any kind just so it was a position. While there he went on a drunken spree. Through the 60's and in the 70's he was addicted to the excessive use of liquor.'"11
There was reason for Herndon repeatedly to be grateful to Mr. Lincoln. Banker Jacob Bunn recalled that Mr. Lincoln had earned a substantial legal fee by playing detective in a collection case. At the time, he declined the fee but eventually he sought compensation to prevent the incarceration of his law partner, William H. Herndon. "Thus the matter stood for a long time, and had almost dropped from my recollection when early one morning, before I had eaten my breakfast, Mr. Lincoln called at my house, reminded me of the transaction, and asked me if I would pay him a hundred dollars and consider it his fee in that case. I complied promptly, assuring him I was glad to do so. Meanwhile I ventured to inquire why he had delayed asking for so long a time, and especially what had prompted him to make the demand at such an unusually early hour, reminding him that he was entitled to his money and could have had it long before. His answer was that he wanted the money, not for himself, but for another who was in trouble and needed his help. This awakened both my interest and curiosity, whereupon he explained that three of his friends had spent the night in a drunken spree, had broken in almost the entire front of a grocery or saloon and otherwise committed acts of such vandalism that before daylight the sheriff was forced to apprehend them; that they were then in the latter's office and would speedily be placed in jail unless some one should appear and settle for the damage done. In a few moments I secured the money and turned it over to him. He seemed more or less relieved, and hurriedly left to interview the sheriff and as soon as possible secure the release of his erring friends. I did not press him for names, but in a short time learned that two of his friends were the sons of wealthy parents and the third, unfortunately, was his law partner. Lincoln was poorer than any of them, and yet, notwithstanding their wealth and disgraceful conduct, he seemed to regard it his duty to crawl out of his bed before daybreak and hasten to their rescue. I doubt if another man in Springfield would have done it."12
Mr. Lincoln split the fees with Herndon - even on those cases where it was clearly Mr. Lincoln's prestige that had attracted the client. They even split their neglect of housekeeping. "The system of business was as slovenly as the office itself: one day, Lincoln suddenly thrust his hands deep into his pantaloons pockets, and fished up two dollars and fifty cents, which he gave to Herndon, saying: 'Here, Billy, is your share of the fee for the suit before Squire ___.'" According to fellow attorney Henry Clay Whitney, "This transaction had every semblance of reality and good faith; yet I felt bound somehow to consider it as a bit of pleasantry; and accordingly I said incredulously: 'is that the way this law firm keeps its accounts?' 'That's jest the way,' promptly replied Lincoln: 'Billy and I never had the scratch of a pen between us; we jest divide as we go along:' and Herndon confirmed this statement of an extraordinary occurrence by a nod."13
Herndon was popular in Springfield. Historian Charles B. Strozier wrote that Herndon "had a huge reservoir of civic pride and was something of a one-man chamber of commerce or, perhaps more generously, Springfield's Benjamin Franklin. No one pushed harder or sang the praises of Springfield's Benjamin Franklin. No one pushed harder or sang the praises of Springfield louder as the new Athens on the prairie."14
Historian David Donald wrote: "Herndon stood out for his sustained loyalty to Lincoln, who, he said, 'was my man always above all other men on the globe.'"15 Herndon was particularly helpful in the summer of 1854 as Lincoln prepared to reenter politics in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that reopened the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery. Colleague Henry Clay Whitney wrote: "The closest and most intimate political and personal friend that Mr. Lincoln had, during the slavery extension struggle, was his partner, William H. Herndon: he was likewise his political Mentor: and had more to do with shaping his friend's great political career than any other ten men."16 Donald wrote: "Herndon's antislavery connections enabled him to serve as a conduit between his partner and abolitionist leaders, who did not really know Lincoln."17 Herndon "considered himself 'the abolitionist' in the law office he shared with Lincoln, and he kept abolitionist material on his desk," wrote historian Carl F. Wieck. "It is consequently not surprising that during the unrest sparked by the Kansas-Nebraska Act he would initiate a correspondence with the incendiary Unitarian clergyman and active abolitionist Theodore Parker, would avidly collect all his writings, and would share them with Lincoln. The relationship was to last until Parker's death in 1860 and allowed the Boston minister unobtrusive access to the future president, as well as the opportunity to wield political and religious influence, since Herndon records that he and his partner held long discussions about what they read. Of the antislavery activists Herndon considered Parker 'grander than all the others,' so it was inevitable that Parker's views on what Herndon terms the great issue of slavery would not only be brought to Lincoln's attention but also benefit from his partner's enthusiastic support."18 Herndon and Parker apparently agreed to keep their relationship confidential - given the potentially detrimental impact any publicity might have on Mr. Lincoln's political career. According to Wieck, "Secrecy was an essential element of the exchange; and it was important to both men, since, as Herndon made clear to the minister on August 4, 1857, his reason for requesting Parker's circumspection 'was on Mr. Lincoln's account.'"19
In the spring of 1858 after a major conflict between Senator Stephen A. Douglas and the administration of President James Buchanan over the Lecompton Constitution approved for Kansas, Herndon visited Washington. Douglas biographer George Milton Fort wrote: "In Washington, Herndon began telling it around among the Senator's intimates that 'Douglas is the biggest man on earth.' These, however, were not deluded. Douglas received Herndon and asked about Lincoln. 'He is not in anybody's way,' the junior partner ingenuously responded, 'not even in yours, Judge Douglas.' But the Senator, undeceived, said that he too was not in Lincoln's way, let Herndon give Lincoln his regards, and 'tell him that I have crossed the river and burned my boat." 20
After the election which Lincoln narrowly lost, Lincoln was depressed. "When friends dropped in to see him, he complained mournfully: 'I expect everyone to desert me except Billy.' He knew that even repeated defeat would deprive him of this one advocate," wrote historian David H. Donald. "That was the thing about the Lincoln-Herndon association: they could count on each other. Inspire of his tendency to mount his hobbyhorse and go galloping off in all directions, Herndon could be relied on to remain loyal to his partner. And for his part, Billy knew that in time of trouble he could depend on Lincoln. When Herndon and a couple of cronies celebrated so wildly one night that they broke the tavern windows, they turned to Lincoln to pay their fines, and that good man got out in the gray morning to collect the one hundred dollars needed to keep his partner from jail."21
Still, Herndon's enthusiasm and strong opposition to slavery were becoming less of an advantage for Lincoln as he began to consider a more national role in which he sought to unify the Republican Party behind opposition to slavery's extension. Lincoln's attention was increasingly split between legal concerns and political ones. "In the January 1860 term of the Illinois Supreme Court, the firm of Lincoln and Herndon suffered an embarrassing series of reverses, losing nine of ten cases, largely because of incompetence," noted historian Michael Burlingame.22 Lincoln had been focused on his upcoming Cooper Union speech to be delivered in New York City in late February. In the presidential campaign of 1860, Herndon's influence diminished in proportion to that exercised by more senior members of the Eighth Judicial District. Henry Clay Whitney wrote that in 1859 "there was considerable loose talk about Lincoln for a place on the ticket for 1860, but it was the mere possibility only; and not anything so substantial as faith, or even a cheerful hope. Herndon, always enthusiastic, wrote a stirring letter to me on April 1st, 1859, in which he said, 'Work and 'put money in thy purse' for 1860. This 1860 is 'a going' to be the great struggle of America,' but made no reference whatever to or about Lincoln or to his possibilities; and no newspaper deemed it of sufficient consequence to mention his name for the position till May 4th, 1859, when the Central Illinois Gazette, a weekly paper, edited by J.W. Scroggs, brought Lincoln out; but the article excited no attention and produced no results, as Lincoln had already been spoken of feebly at home in that connection, and the article thus discounted."23 Lincoln himself effectively dropped the active practice of law after he was nominated for the presidency in Chicago in May 1860. Much of his time over the ensuing months before and after the election was spent greeting visitors to Springfield.
"During the winter of 1860-1861, as the secession crisis deepened, Herndon was increasingly out of touch with Lincoln's thinking. Paradoxically, at a time when he saw less and less of his partner, he began privately to claim more and more knowledge of Lincoln's plans," wrote David Donald.24 Superficially, their relationship survived Mr. Lincoln's elevation to the Presidency: President Lincoln wrote Herndon in February 1862, "Yours of January 30th just received. Do just as you say about the money matter. As you well know, I have not time to write a letter of respectable length. God bless you always Your friend A. Lincoln."25 Indirectly, Herndon may have continued to influence his mentor. Lincoln scholar Carl F. Wieck wrote that "Key elements of both the Gettysburg Address and the House Divided speech are directly traceable to philosophy, rhetoric, logic, and ideas found in [Theodore Parker's] 'A Sermon of the Dangers which Threaten the Rights of Man in America'; and that the sermon incorporates specific phrases such as 'a house divided against itself,' 'we shall not fail,' and two instances of 'government of all, by all, for all,' which are the same as or similar to those used by Lincoln."26
Neither of Lincoln's former law partners, Stephen T. Logan and William Herndon, got their just patronage reward, according to Henry C. Whitney. "The citizens of Springfield were desirous to be honored in the exaltation of these two great men and finding Lincoln not endowed with the attribute of spontaneity as to them sent on a deputation of its citizens to Washington to urge that Logan be appointed Supreme Judge, and Herndon, Minister to Rome: but he was deaf to their requests, and Springfield was unrepresented in the list of general appointments. He even went into the southern part of the state for a marshal for that district, and let [David] Davis appoint one of his friends as district attorney. In the distribution of favors he avoided all of those dear friends to whom he owed all that he was, with an unfaltering constancy and it was an error (if at all) on the right side."27
After Lincoln's death, William H. Herndon embarked on yeoman's work to collect the recollections of Illinois friends and contemporaries with the intention of writing a biography about his law partner. Herndon was determined to be objective rather than adulatory. Some of his research was turned in material for speeches - that offended some contemporaries, especially Mrs. Lincoln who had never liked him. She particularly offended by Herndon's contention that Ann Rutledge rather than Mary Todd was Lincoln's great love. Herndon, however, gave Mrs. Lincoln her due, writing that "when Mrs Lincoln was a young and unmarried woman that she was rather pleasant - polite - civil - rather graceful in her movements-intelligent, witty, and sometimes bitter too: she was a polished girl - well educated - a good linguist - a fine conversationalist - was educated thoroughly at Lexington, Ky: she was poor when she came here about 1839 - a little proud-sometimes haughty. I have met Miss Todd many times at socials - balls - dances-& the like-have danced with her."28 Herndon however contended: "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."29 Herndon also wrote: "Mr & Mrs Lincoln's marriage was an unfortunate one, and I say to you that 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."30
Herndon's view of Mrs. Lincoln has long affected her reputation. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote: "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.'"31
Herndon was particularly pointed about Lincoln's lack of conventional Christian religious beliefs. He wrote that Lincoln "believed in predestination, foreordination, that all things were fixed, doomed one way or the other, form which there was no appeal. He has often said to me: 'What is to be will be and no efforts nor prayers of ours can change, alter, modify, or reverse the decree.'"32
Herndon wrote a good deal of psychological analysis about the martyred president: "Though gifted with accurate and acute perception, though a profound thinker as well as analyzer, still Lincoln's judgment on many and minor matters was oftentimes childish. By the word judgment I do not mean what mental philosophers would call the exercise of reason, will - understanding; but I use the term in its popular sense. I refer to that capacity or power which decides on the fitness, the harmony, or, if you will, the beauty and appropriateness of things. I have always thought, and sometimes said, Lincoln lacked this quality in his mental structure. He was on the alert if a principle was involved or a man's rights at stake in a transaction; but he never could see the harm in wearing a sack-coat instead of a swallowtail to an evening party, nor could he realize the offense of telling a vulgar yarn if a preacher happened to be present."33
Clinton Conkling, the son of one of the prominent lawyers in the Springfield legal establishment, recalled: "I find no trace of any tradition that William H. Herndon applied specifically for appointment as United States Minister to Rome, but it is commonly understood here that Mr. Herndon was an applicant for most any large position that he would induce Mr. Lincoln to give to him. I do not find anyone who knows that certain people from Springfield Washington in the interests of Mr. Herndon. The opinion seems to be that no persons from Springfield made such a visit. It was commonly said here, when Herndon's 'Life of Lincoln' appeared, that he was now 'getting back at ' Mr. Lincoln for not having appointed him to some important diplomatic position or to some high office in the Government. Mr. Lincoln knew the capacities of his old acquaintance here perhaps as well as anybody. Those who knew Mr. Herndon could not consider him a proper person to act as United States Minister at Rome, either by education, training or disposition."34
Although Herndon said he wrote President Lincoln frequently, only one such letter survives - from August 29, 1863 in which he reported on both legal matters and local politics: " I saw Mr. Smith this morning about the money he owes us. He says he will pay this fall or winter, but I much doubt it. I have written to Cairo to Mr Smith's agent to send the money, at the request of Smith himself. How this will turn out I do not know. I am, on our account, collecting nothing, as I stripped the good ones pretty well just before you started, and which you will remember."
The great case of McDaniel vs Correll or Correll vs McDaniel rather, was decided at our April term in favor of the McDaniels. Hay & I were for the McD's -- gained it -- With a note for you -- in your favor, for $250-- If this is right you need not write, but if wrong you can write to me, stating what to do.
We will have a great time here on the 3d Septr and it is thought it will be the largest crowd ever Convened here. There is no doubt but that it will be a large meeting. I hope it will -- hope it will give us confidence, back-bone vigor & energy. The Democracy are evidently organizing for evil, but when, where & or for what they will strike we are left in the dark. The Union men are busy at work all over the Sate to meet any emergency. They are determined -- are cool -- not hasty -- not rash. The English say -- "God Save the Queen". I say "God Save the Union".35
For that meeting, President Lincoln had written his famous "Conkling Letter" to be read by meeting organizer James Conkling. Herndon appears to have been in more regular contact with Lincoln's chief secretary, John G. Nicolay, writing him in August 1861: "I this moment recd a letter from Washington, asking this question -- "Is your Father a secessionist"? I was requested in the same letter to write to you, and I do so now.. I say in reference to the question this -- My father is not a secessionist -- is a strong Union man -- for the Constitution, & the laws..1 He, however, hates war -- all war, and is bold to say so-- So far as I can understand he & Judge Logan occupy about the same position -- both being monied men -- old & timid -- disturbed & terrified."36
After Lincoln's death in 1865, Herndon could be very critical of the personality of his former law partner. Nearly two decades at Lincoln's side had given him a unique perspective concerning Lincoln's strengths and weaknesses. Herndon noted that "Mr. Lincoln himself was a very sensitive man, and hence, in dealing with others, he avoided wounding their hearts or puncturing their sensibility. He was unusually considerate of the feelings of other men, regardless of their rank, condition or station."37 Herndon wrote: "Mr. Lincoln was tender-hearted when in the presence of suffering or when it was enthusiastically or poetically described to him; he had great charity for the weaknesses of his fellow-man; his nature was merciful and it sprang into manifestations quickly on the presentation of a proper subject under proper conditions; he had no imagination to invoke, through the distances, suffering, nor fancy to paint it. The subject of mercy must be presented to him."38
Herndon himself was unable to complete the biography. He gave his files to Ward Hill Lamon who in turn gave them to a ghostwriter to produce one biography, which was widely criticized. Herndon later collaborated with Jesse W. Weik to produce Herndon's Life of Abraham Lincoln, which was first published in 1889. The biography effectively ended with Lincoln's assumption of the presidency; Herndon had relatively little contact with Lincoln after 1860. Although Herndon's conclusions about Lincoln's character have often been challenged, the importance of his original research has never been doubted. It has been collected in Lincoln's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis.