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

Nothing in Herndon's known letters and interviews would give rise to or remotely justify any such conclusions about the private life of Abraham Lincoln. That Dall must have gotten this extraordinary impression from notations in Herndon's memorandum books would seem to be confirmed by Herndon's cautionary letter to her a few weeks after her visit.

My wife tells me you read some of my memoranda, 'which is all right,' and yet I wish to say a word about it for your sake. Some facts in those little books need explanation -- others are false -- perverted & maliciously colored. Again -- some of my conclusions, made at an Early day when I Commenced gathering facts, have since then changed, or been modified: So if you want any particular idea you got from those memoranda Explained, denied &c, you had better write to me, Saying what you wish &c. &c; and if it is possible to do so I will Explain. You must remember that I am not responsible for what others say, and which I note down.

What does all of this mean? Well, one thing it means is that Herndon was far more discreet than his townsmen supposed, for he appears to have kept a separate set of books for the more sensitive and potentially scandalous allegations about Lincoln. His letter to Dall suggests that his memorandum books were a mixed bag of material. It seems altogether likely that they contained some of the stories about Lincoln's "weak points" that Herndon said he had been offered in private by Lincoln's acquaintances. But he made clear to Dall that the material in the books would need judicious sorting and qualification, indicating that it could not be reliably evaluated or used by someone who did not know the people and situations involved. This is almost certainly why he did not have these memoranda copied, and it may also be why he decided, albeit under pressure and against his better judgment, to lend them to Ward Hill Lamon, who after all knew and was devoted to Lincoln, and would presumably be able to judge such things. Dall's reaction showed dramatically what could result from the indiscriminate acceptance of such "floating rumors" and "secreat and private things," for she wrote confidently in her journal a few months later that she had definite knowledge of "the debauchery that stained all [Lincoln's] life from Ann R[utledge]'s death -- to the hour of his starting for Washington."

Herndon's cautious treatment of such "floating rumors" does him credit, but it does not mean that the reports he had collected were false. Herndon admitted that he simply ignored many things he was told that he didn't think credible -- which could be taken as an indication that he regarded the things he did write down as possible or probable truths. Thus we cannot simply write off the possibility that Herndon had evidence of a sort that Lincoln had engaged in illicit sexual behavior. On the contrary, this episode seems to tell us that there are some sensational reports about Lincoln's private life that we have never seen. Since it is impossible to evaluate such reports without seeing them, we have no alternative but to reserve judgment.

DO we really want to know all these things, and do we need to know them? Are not such things private matters that have little or nothing to do with the historical role played by a national hero? Theodore Roosevelt, in castigating the investigative reporters of his day, said, "The men with the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck." To appreciate our great men and women, do we really need to know everything? Herndon, who was an ardent theorist, argued that at least in the case of a great hero, we do. In a characteristically bold statement he wrote Weik in 1887,

The purposes ... of writing the biography of a hero are to make him fully known to the reading world.... all the facts of the hero should be told -- the whole of his life should be stated, including the smallest facts -- and including feelings -- thoughts, determinations and deeds ... it is the religious duty of the biographer to state all the facts.

This sweeping remark was cited by Herndon's biographer, David Herbert Donald, who observed, "Judging from his practice, Herndon meant that any reminiscence, idea or inference which he or anyone else might make was suitable material for a biography. Everything was grist for his mill." Donald goes on to list examples from Herndon's letters of the heterogeneous collection of things Herndon told various correspondents about Lincoln. Donald shows Herndon reporting on the activity of Lincoln's bowels, his being an ideal for America, his contracting syphilis, his "terrible passion" for women, his flawless character, the vulgarity and nastiness of his anecdotes, and his Christlike nobility. This hodgepodge of the noble and the unedifying helps us to see that contrary to what one might infer, the undifferentiated use of such details was not Herndon's practice as a biographer. In a comparison of this list with the biography he published, it becomes clear that Herndon omitted the earthier details and included only those that reflected positively on Lincoln. As a collector of information he may have made everything grist for his mill, and he may have been willing to pass on embarrassing and unflattering details privately to selected correspondents, but Herndon used great discrimination when it came to his published biography.

Herndon had propounded a theory of biography that he couldn't live up to; he thought he wanted to tell the whole truth about Abraham Lincoln but he couldn't find a way to do it. His philosophical conception of truth suggested that since Lincoln's greatness consisted of the sum total of his experience, it must be possible to "state all the facts" in such a way that even embarrassing and ordinarily discreditable information would help to reveal Lincoln's transcendent nobility. But how to do this without doing more harm than good to his friend's reputation? Before he began writing, Herndon seemed confident that he could manage it, as when he wrote Dall, in 1866, "I know all and what is best for Mr L. & the great Ever living universal head & heart. I shall do no one wrong but in the End literal & Enlarged Justice." But twenty years later, with the biography still waiting to be written, he admitted, "To tell the truth -- the exact truth as you see it is a hard road to travel in this world when that truth runs square up against our ideas of what we think it ought to be."

Caroline Healey Dall was in some ways the perfect audience for Herndon's theorizing, for she understood and actually embraced his aspirations. Even before she was over the shock of reading his secret memoranda, she found herself admiring Lincoln all the more. In her letter to Clarke she wrote,

I shall when I recover poise continue to think his life -- the greatest miracle: God's own way -- of stating the extremest republicanism. I have racked my brain in vain, for a single instance in History like it. And that he could ultimately rise to self conquest, ought to forbid the lowest wretch to despair. It is a better help in one sense than the life of Christ, for all his endowments were towards holiness.
Dall's hope that others would take inspiration from Lincoln's "self conquest" assumed, of course, that his moral failings would be told as part of his story.

This assumption explains her doubt, expressed in her journal, that Herndon was the right person for so difficult a task, and her ultimate disappointment with his biography. Herndon did not include anything about what she called Lincoln's "debauchery," and he touched only briefly on the ambiguity of Lincoln's origins. When the biography appeared, Dall wrote to complain that Herndon had not told the truth about Lincoln's paternity. He replied, "In your letter you state that Lincoln was an illegitimate and that I should have so stated. I did not think that the Conflicting Evidences before me justified the bold assertion in a book whatever my private opinion was. Had I been certain of the supposed fact I Should have so asserted." Herndon went on to admit that he "may have softened Some things," but added, "you will please remember that 20 or 25 years change our opinions of men -- measures and policies." Here, then, is at least a partial explanation for the discrepancy between Herndon's bold theory and his temporizing performance -- that he had moderated his earlier views of what were necessary truths about Lincoln's life, and that he had come to insist on a higher standard of proof for his published biography than for his private opinions.

Was Herndon merely rationalizing his practice, or had he perhaps shown restraint out of respect for the privacy of the people involved? Or both? He certainly withheld from his biography many embarrassing details that he believed to be true, as his letters and informant materials show. Though it seems doubtful that he ever contemplated using things that he didn't think were well founded, this could hardly be the reason for leaving out the sexual material about Lincoln, for he himself was the source of some of it. He repeated none of the stories touching on Lincoln's sexual behavior, and although he has been roundly criticized for portraying Mary Todd Lincoln unfavorably, he could easily have repeated stories that put her in an even more unflattering light. In fact, if Dall may be believed, he had collected stories about Mary Lincoln's own infidelity, which he also presumably suppressed.

It seems to me likely that privacy was an important issue for Herndon, probably more so than propriety, of which he was no great champion. Finding no efficacious way to incorporate sensitive matters, he probably felt an obligation, as Lincoln's close friend, not to reveal things that showed him in an embarrassing light -- or, as another close friend, Leonard Swett, had put it, not to "[develop] his weaknesses." But if Herndon was more discreet than his contemporaries feared, and deliberately withheld unseemly or embarrassing information about Lincoln, what does this say about his vaunted reputation for truthfulness? Actually, it says very little. As far as we know, he never wittingly published a falsehood about Lincoln. Donald, who was quite critical of Herndon, wrote, "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." There is no doubt that Herndon suppressed information that he believed to be true but that would have been scandalous, even if only hinted at, in a nineteenth-century biography. But we should note that in doing so, Herndon was simply doing what nearly everyone at that time regarded as his duty as Lincoln's friend and biographer.

A modern historian, even a friendly and admiring one, is of course obliged to take a very different view of his subject's privacy, a right that is scarcely recognized by the rules of his profession. Even a biographer who doesn't believe certain allegations or thinks them unimportant would nowadays still have to deal with them. They could not simply be ignored.

In a real sense it is not the historian but history itself that is the enemy of privacy. History, considered as the irrepressible urge of the human imagination to engage the past, by definition poses a constant threat to personal privacy. No better illustration of this unpleasant truth could be found than the famous story about President Harry S. Truman's wife, Bess, who was discovered by her husband burning some letters he had written her. The alarmed President is supposed to have pleaded, "Think of history." The wise Bess is said to have answered, "I have."

All who are fascinated by Abraham Lincoln face Herndon's dilemma. We want to know everything about him, but we don't want his image to be tarnished or his stature diminished. The experienced historian knows that these two wishes are basically in conflict: heroes and heroines are defined by their deeds, and the more we know about their nonheroic doings, the less heroic they seem. The reappearance of Herndon's memorandum books is, to use a Jeffersonian phrase, "among possible events." But even if the books were found to contain allegations of the kind that singed Caroline Dall's sensitivities, and even if these carried the ring of truth, it seems doubtful that they would substantially affect our judgment of the historical Abraham Lincoln and his standing as a great national hero. He was what he was, and he did what he did. The compromising stories Herndon collected did nothing to change his own view of Lincoln, and it seems highly unlikely that they would do much to alter ours.

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


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).

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