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Keeping Lincoln's Secrets

Illustration by Marc Burckhardt

William H. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln's law partner and biographer, made a record of "secreat and private things" about Lincoln in two memorandum books that long ago disappeared. Now diary entries have materialized, written by a woman who saw the memorandum books in 1866, and who recorded her shocked reactions to accounts of "profligacy" and "debauchery." A distinguished Lincoln scholar describes the discovery, and considers anew the collision of privacy and history

by Douglas L. Wilson

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

EVERY age needs its own biographies of the great historical figures. The questions each new age asks, the things it urgently wants to know -- and, one might add, wants to believe -- are expressions of its own views of the world and are usually different from those of previous ages and generations. The case of Thomas Jefferson presents an instructive example. Until fairly recently Jefferson's best and most conscientious biographers duly reported, but gave little or no credence to, the claims that he had had a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. In 1970 the great Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone addressed this matter in the fourth volume of his magisterial biography by soberly reviewing the charges, which he found unsubstantiated, in a brief appendix. Only four years later the historian Fawn Brodie published a biography that treated the relationship with Sally Hemings as a central fact in Jefferson's life. To the dismay of Malone and most other authorities on Jefferson's life, Brodie's treatment was not only seriously entertained but enthusiastically embraced by a large proportion of the American public. As a consequence, even before the much heralded release in 1998 of DNA evidence that lends significant (though not conclusive) support to Brodie's thesis, there were two things that most Americans claimed to know about Thomas Jefferson: that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that he fathered several children by one of his slaves. In what must surely be a measure of our times, it is the first of these accepted truths, not the second, that is currently being challenged.

Discuss this article in the politics & society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"A Passive President?", by James M. McPherson (November, 1995)
A review of David Herbert Donald's biography of Lincoln.

"Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue," by Douglas L. Wilson (November, 1992)
As the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth approaches, a Jefferson scholar reflects on Jefferson's life -- and in particular on the enigma at its core: that a slave holder should be the nation's most eloquent champion of equality.

"Abe Lincoln, Country Lawyer," by Benjamin P. Thomas (February, 1954)
"In Lincoln's early manhood, while the law provided bread and butter, politics became his life."

"New Light on Lincoln's Boyhood," by Arthur E. Morgan (February, 1920)
"Many people have asked how it could come to pass that Lincoln, growing up in a mean environment, and lacking culture and education, could become 'the first American,' and interpreter of democracy to all the world."

"Lincoln," by John Vance Cheney (February, 1909)
A poem.

"Recollections of Lincoln," by Henry Villard (February, 1904)
"I must say frankly that, although I found him most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor, I could not take a real personal liking to the man."

See a collection of Atlantic articles and related resources about Abraham Lincoln.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "Rhetoric of Freedom" (September 16, 1999)
Atlantic articles by Emerson and Frederick Douglass comment on Lincoln's greatest decision, and his greatest legacy.

Flashback: "American President" (February 20, 1997)
A collection of articles about Presidents and the presidency.

Although Abraham Lincoln's intellectual interests were not nearly so broad, or his public activities so varied, as Jefferson's, the American public's fascination with Lincoln's life and political career is sufficiently intense to sustain the exploration of virtually anything that purports to be new or newly interpreted information. Because Lincoln is widely regarded as the greatest of all Americans, and is thus part of our national identity, a substantial audience exists for the revelation of even the smallest anecdotes and bits of incidental information. It seems we can never know enough about Abraham Lincoln.

No one has had more of an impact on how we view Lincoln's pre-presidential life and character than William H. Herndon, his law partner and biographer. And no biographer has paid a higher price for his services to posterity. For reasons that have been widely discussed by Lincoln scholars in the past few years, Herndon and his biographical efforts have been under a cloud of suspicion for a good portion of the twentieth century, but we are coming to see how much of the criticism aimed at him has been misguided or misplaced and needs to be reconsidered. It now appears that beginning about midcentury, Lincoln scholarship became so preoccupied with Herndon's supposed weaknesses and shortcomings that it lost sight of the magnitude of his contribution. Although Herndon was far from an ideal biographer, he was an honest and a conscientious one, and the biographical resources he gathered and developed are simply indispensable to our knowledge of Lincoln.

William Herndon was very different from his partner. Outgoing and exuberant by nature, he was as communicative and unbuttoned as Abraham Lincoln was guarded and reserved. An avid reader, and very much caught up in the philosophical currents of his time (particularly transcendentalism), Herndon was fervently idealistic and took readily to the role of reformer. In these respects he was certainly Lincoln's opposite. He was also, by comparison with Lincoln, something of a radical. Thus Herndon sided with the abolitionists well before Lincoln could see his way clear to stand with them politically in the newly formed Republican Party.

Herndon thought that by virtue of having been Lincoln's partner for sixteen years, and having been in a prime position during that time to observe his behavior and habits of mind, he had known Lincoln better than anyone else. Lincoln's other friends did not so much dispute this fact as regret it, for they did not regard Herndon as a suitable person to write the life of Abraham Lincoln. It was not that Herndon wasn't truthful and honest, for he was; it was not that he was spiteful or envious toward Lincoln, for he was not. It was more that because of his guileless and uninhibited nature, Herndon could not be trusted to present Lincoln's life tactfully, with due regard for the propriety and decorum that the situation called for.

One gets a sense of this from reports of the tribute paid to Lincoln by the Springfield, Illinois, bar shortly after his assassination. As Lincoln's former partner, Herndon was designated to voice the sentiments of his fellow lawyers and to acknowledge Lincoln's qualities at the bar. After praising Lincoln's "uprightness, integrity, cordiality and kindness of heart, amenity of manner and his strict attention not only to the rights, but to the feelings of all," Herndon allowed in passing that Lincoln "was not as broadminded as some other men." This candid admission caused Stephen T. Logan, Lincoln's previous partner and the leader of the Springfield bar, to rise and contradict Herndon. Herndon's audience must have known that he was not wrong; it was clearly the appropriateness rather than the substance of his remark that was at issue.

There were, admittedly, other factors. Those of Lincoln's Springfield friends who had known him the longest -- John T. Stuart, James H. Matheny, Milton Hay, William Butler, Ninian W. Edwards -- had in varying degrees drifted away from Lincoln, both personally and politically, in the years leading up to his nomination. They had all been Whigs together, but the breakup of their party in the 1850s put them on divergent paths. In spite of their doubts about the soundness of Lincoln's politics and their private jealousies and resentments, after his assassination they suddenly found themselves, willy-nilly, the guardians of his memory. They all had great regard for Lincoln's astuteness, as both a lawyer and a politician, but much of what they knew about the pre-presidential life of the martyred President was in these circumstances problematic: his disreputable family background, his compulsion for dirty stories, his often messy domestic life and less than exemplary (some thought loveless) marriage, his relative lack of interest in civic or humanitarian causes, and his long-standing religious skepticism. These things were seriously at odds with what the public wanted to believe, and it now became the solemn duty of Lincoln's oldest friends to minimize or remain silent on such embarrassing subjects, at least for the time being. Herndon frequently came up against this situation in his efforts to gather information about Lincoln. He told his collaborator, Jesse W. Weik,

You know that the People in this city do not like to talk much about Lincoln: they have no disposition to tell good things about him & when cornered the people here in private will willingly tell you Lincoln's weak points -- and damaging facts as they look at it. Lincoln outstript them and they in secret hate him.

In contrast, Herndon had always idolized and revered his law partner, and had urged his transition from the Whig to the Republican Party. His admiration only grew during Lincoln's presidency. He believed emphatically that by emancipating the slaves and saving the Union, Lincoln had risen to a position as one of the world's greatest men. But unlike his more conventional townsmen, Herndon argued that Lincoln's greatness could not be diminished by the truth, whatever it might prove to be. In fact, after investigating Lincoln's life for a year and a half, he came to the conclusion that certain truths that would ordinarily be explained away or suppressed by a sympathetic nineteenth-century biographer were necessary to the understanding of Lincoln's greatness.

The prime example of Herndon's doctrine of "necessary truth" is the issue of illegitimacy. From what Lincoln had told him directly, Herndon knew that his partner believed that his own mother, Nancy Hanks, was illegitimate. Herndon corresponded with informants from Kentucky, where Lincoln was born, who led him to believe that Lincoln himself was probably illegitimate, and Herndon began to see these circumstances as important to Lincoln's development and character. Having to grow up ashamed of his origins was, Herndon speculated to a correspondent, the "fiery furnace" in which Lincoln's character had been formed, and was in fact directly responsible for some of his finest human qualities. Herndon also believed that the near atheism that was evident in Lincoln's years in New Salem, Illinois, was caused by his despair over the death of Ann Rutledge, an ordeal that Herndon believed had produced lasting effects on Lincoln's mind and spirit. These were matters that might not ordinarily be touched on in the biography of a great national hero, but Herndon thought of them as indispensable to understanding Lincoln's greatness. In a characteristic passage on this theme he wrote, "Mr. Lincoln can stand unstaggeringly up beneath all necessary or other truths. Timid men would rob Mr Lincoln of his crown and cross ... through a suggestion of falsehood or the suppression of the necessary facts of a great man's history."

Herndon's readiness to theorize, of which this is a prime example, is one of the things about him that give scholars pause and that have helped to cloud his reputation. But to his credit, Herndon recognized that such disclosures, if they were to carry biographical weight, needed to be founded on very solid evidence, whereas what he had, at least in the matter of Lincoln's questionable paternity, was little more than rumor, and rumor from informants he had never met. He was inclined to believe that there was some measure of truth behind such persistent reports, and to resolve his doubts he decided he must go to Kentucky, where he could look his informants in the eye. He told a correspondent, "I am going to Ky myself in the Spring. I want to see men's & women's faces when they talk about these matters. I want to read their motives &c." His inability to make the journey seems to have been an important reason why Herndon could not get his biography launched in 1867, as planned.

BUT he apparently had more than just the Kentucky testimony to contend with. He was conducting the first oral history of a great American hero, and was finding out firsthand the difficulties of interpreting what people told him. He wrote to a correspondent in June of 1866, "The trouble is very, very great, I assure you. Thousands of floating rumors -- assertions and theories, etc., etc., have to be hunted down -- dug out -- inspected criticized, etc., etc., before I can write." Herndon often spoke and wrote in exaggerated terms, but it seems very doubtful that this remark referred exclusively to the reports about Lincoln's paternity. Even allowing for Herndonian hyperbole, such exasperation would seem to go well beyond the tangle of stories coming out of Kentucky. What, we may ask, could Herndon be referring to?

The most obvious subject of "rumors" running through Herndon's extant informant testimony is a slim thread of anecdote and insinuation relating to Lincoln's sexual behavior. Some of his New Salem friends implied that he had been sexually involved with women there, even suggesting that he was the father of certain women's children. Such gossip about a bachelor in a pioneer village is hardly surprising, and may be no more significant than his rowdy friend Jack Armstrong's standing joke that Lincoln had fathered one of his children. Armstrong's idea of fun, according to a mutual acquaintance, was to "plague" his friend relentlessly on this subject, which may simply have been Jack's way of acknowledging Lincoln's fondness for his wife, Hannah. A few examples survive of Lincoln's own stories of overnight encounters on the road with young women; although probably based on real incidents, these may have been colored by the familiar genre of stories about "the farmer's daughter."


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

Douglas L. Wilson is a co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998).

Illustration by Marc Burckhardt.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Keeping Lincoln's Secrets - 00.05; Volume 285, No. 5; page 78-88.