Facts are said to be the building blocks of history. For those living in an age where virtually everyone leaves a paper trail through government agencies, public schools, and local newspapers, documentation of the rudimentary facts of life is taken for granted, and the challenge of reconstructing the past is presumed to lie principally, if not exclusively, in the selection and interpretation of factual evidence. But for Abraham Lincoln’s early life, documentary records and verifiable facts are difficult to come by, and the serious student is forced to come to terms with something more challenging and mercurial: the personal testimony and recollections of those who knew him. The present work brings to publication the richest and most extensive collection of such material.
How this collection came into being, what it contains, and why it is only now being published in a scholarly edition is a complicated story that began soon after the assassination of President Lincoln in mid-April 1865. It involves the character and career of what has been called "one of the first extensive oral history projects in American history,"
Within a few weeks of the assassination of President Lincoln in April 1865, Herndon conceived the idea to write something about his old friend. The two men had been closely associated as partners in the Springfield firm of Lincoln and Herndon since 1843 and had known each other for several years before that. When Herndon tried out his literary aspirations on certain knowledgeable friends, they encouraged him to capitalize on his intimate personal knowledge of Lincoln’s career.
xivinformed you that it was my intention to write & publish the subjective Mr Lincoln — ‘The inner life’ of Mr L." What he meant by this Herndon went on to explain in his inimitable style: "I am writing Mr L’s life — a short little thing — giving him in his passions — appetites — & affections — perceptions — memories — judgements — understanding — will, acting under & by motions, just as he lived, breathed — ate & laughed in this world, clothed in flesh & sinew — bone
This sounds ambitious, if not grandly presumptuous, but Herndon thought his close association with the fallen president in the practice of law had given him an opportunity to observe Lincoln’s mind and personality that was afforded no one else. Nor was he alone in his thinking, for his correspondents frequently pointed this out. What may have been the first letter he received on the subject of his proposed biography began: "I am glad you design giving us something about Lincoln. Your long acquaintance and close association with him must have given you a clearer insight into his character than other men obtained."
But Herndon was apparently not content to retail his own impressions where Lincoln’s early life was concerned. He seems to have had a passion for getting at what he called "the facts," which is presumably what led him to embark at once upon a series of inquiries, not just in Illinois, but in Kentucky, where Lincoln had been born, and southwestern Indiana, where he grew up. When Herndon set out at the end of May on his first fact-finding trip to Menard County, his announced object was to search "for the facts & truths of Lincoln’s life — not fictions — not fables — not floating rumors, but facts — solid facts & well attested truths."
It is distinctly ironic that many of the "facts" that Herndon found so "solid" and "well attested" would one day be regarded as the "fictions" and "fables" he was trying to supplant, for Herndon was already reacting to the public’s growing tendency to mythologize his former partner. He began purposefully and energetically to compile information for an account that would expose to the world not a sainted martyr but the real man. The excited letter he wrote to Holland upon his return suggests that he was unprepared for what he had found: "I have ‘been down’ to Menard County where Mr L first landed and where he first made his home in old Sangamon. . . . From such an investigation — from records — from friends — old deeds & surveys &c &c I am satisfied, in Connection with my own Knowl-edg of Mr L. for 30 years, that Mr Ls whole Early life remains to be written."
Herndon’s astonishment was undoubtedly genuine. He thought he had known his law partner well, so well that he was prepared to write his subjective, inner life. And since he also knew personally many of the Menard County residents he had interviewed, he was apparently amazed to discover from their stories of Lincoln in New Salem that he had actually known very little about his great partner’s formative years. This seems to have intensified his zeal for discovery, for he proceeded to generate a whirlwind of investigative activity. In the early summer of 1865, he sent out scores of letters to people who had known Lincoln, he interviewed knowledgeable friends and associates who were closer at hand, and he systematically established contacts for the purpose of gathering information in far-off places such as Kentucky, Indiana, and even Virginia. Within a few months, in addition to his prolific correspondence and local interviewing in the Springfield area, Herndon had traveled to Chicago to interview Lincoln’s cousins, John and Dennis Hanks; to Coles County, Illinois, to interview Lincoln’s stepmother and other relatives; and to southwest Indiana, where he interviewed many of Lincoln’s boyhood friends and neighbors.
Neglecting his law practice and other responsibilities, Herndon kept up this strenuous pace of investigation for nearly two years. When he was unable to go himself, he sent others to secure testimony.
The more Herndon corresponded and interviewed, the more surprising things he learned; and the more he learned, the more he became convinced that he had uncovered important information about Lincoln’s early life that bore significantly on the formation of his character, and thus on his later accomplishments. If what his informants were telling him was true, the man whom a grieving nation was rapidly raising to sainthood had actually been born of doubtful parentage; he had been subject to deep and even tragic disappointments in love; he had been subject to bouts of mental derangement and had been suicidal on more than one occasion; he had been a rank unbeliever in religion and had openly ridiculed the
xvitenets of Christianity; he had proposed marriage to several women, and after becoming engaged to his future wife, Mary Todd, had fallen in love with someone else; and after a long period of guilt and indecision, he had finally given himself up to a loveless marriage to satisfy his sense of honor.
Nearly all of this was news to Herndon, who soon realized that the picture he was in the process of putting together was scandalously at odds with what other biographers had presented and with what the worshiping public had come to expect. When he tried out some of his findings on the public in November 1866— in a lecture on Lincoln’s tragic courtship of Ann Rutledge—he tactlessly gave offense by urging his own hypothesis that Ann’s untimely death was a principal source of Lincoln’s lifelong melancholy and that Ann herself was the only woman Lincoln had ever loved.
Knowing that he had additional revelations to make, even more unwelcome and potentially disruptive than the Ann Rutledge story, gave Herndon serious pause. Especially the ambiguous and inconsistent nature of the testimony he collected about Lincoln’s paternity, from Kentucky informants he did not know and whom he had never questioned face-to-face, seems to have contributed to his inability to complete a draft of his biography.
Herndon’s plan was to draft his biography in 1867, but with the death of his father in that year and his subsequent inheritance of a substantial farm, Herndon let his biographical project languish. In 1869, under serious financial pressure, he
xviisold transcriptions of his collected materials, which he referred to as his "Lincoln Record," to Lincoln’s friend Ward Hill Lamon and deferred his biography indefinitely.
Although he continued, in the years that followed, to supply information about Abraham Lincoln to a great variety of correspondents, occasionally being drawn into public controversy, Herndon did not seriously resume his own biographical investigations until the mid-1880s, when he entered into a collaboration with one of his correspondents, Jesse W. Weik. Weik was a native of Greencastle, Indiana, who had boldly written Herndon for a Lincoln autograph in 1875, the year he graduated from college. The two met in 1882 when Weik was assigned to Springfield as a government pension agent, and a friendship developed between the aging law partner of Lincoln and the aspiring young writer, who was an admirer of both. Just before Weik returned to Indiana in 1885, the two men began a collaboration to produce a biography for which Herndon would supply most of the documentation and opinion and Weik would do most of the writing.
Herndon began sending Weik a torrent of letters in late 1885, putting down on an almost daily basis incidents and anecdotes about Lincoln as they came to mind. To fill out his picture and clarify some issues, he went back to interviewing some of his old informants and located some new ones as well. Weik also conducted interviews and corresponded with people who had known Lincoln, even traveling to Kentucky for this purpose, something Herndon had never managed to do. From the surviving originals of the letters and interviews Herndon had assembled in the 1860s (some had been lost), from dozens of additional letters and draft material on Lincoln sent by Herndon, and from new letters and interviews, Weik crafted the text of the biography that was published in 1889 as Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. Herndon died in 1891, but not before helping to prepare a revised edition of the biography, with new material, that appeared in 1892.
Most of the testimony assembled in this process by Herndon and Weik relates to Lincoln’s life before he became president. They collected accounts of Lincoln’s boyhood in Kentucky, his growing to manhood in Indiana, his six years in and around the village of New Salem, his domestic life in Springfield, his career as a practicing politician and officeholder, and his professional life as a successful circuit and state supreme court lawyer. This testimony came not just from a handful of like-minded people but from more than 250 widely differing informants: political allies and adversaries, fellow lawyers and judges, relatives and in-laws, clients and cronies, women to whom he proposed marriage, longtime comrades and erstwhile friends. As this listing suggests, the information imparted is not confined to political and public affairs but relates to the whole spectrum of his pre-presi-dential life and character.
The importance of these documents is beyond dispute. Though many biographers wrote about Abraham Lincoln before and in the years immediately following his death, none carried their investigations to the lengths that Herndon did. Indeed, Albert J. Beveridge wrote that he could not recall "another case in history where, immediately after the death of a great personage, the facts of his personal life were collected so carefully, thoroughly and impartially by a lifelong friend and intimate professional associate, as the facts about Lincoln were gathered by William H. Herndon."
From the time it was first assembled, Herndon’s informant archive has been recognized as valuable. Ward Hill Lamon contracted with Herndon in 1869 to pay $4,000 for the transcriptions made by John G. Springer.
The Springer transcriptions are eloquent testimony to the diligence and magnitude of Herndon’s labors, and, though copies, they are useful in many ways to
xixthe student of Lincoln’s life. For one thing, they are legible, which many of the originals are not. Having been copied in Herndon’s office under his supervision, they have considerable authority, as well as great utility, when it comes to deciphering the many passages in the originals that are difficult to read. Another consideration is that a substantial number of originals are no longer to be found. Herndon gives part of the reason when he reports that some were lost in an office fire, some were brazenly stolen by people he allowed to examine them, and some, when stored at his farm, were eaten by mice.
After Herndon’s death, his collection of Lincoln documents became the property of his collaborator, Jesse W. Weik, who drew on them for his own biographical study, The Real Lincoln, published in 1922. Though Weik permitted a few trusted researchers to consult Herndon’s materials—Horace White, for his life of Lyman Trumbull, and Joseph Fort Newton, for his book Lincoln and Herndon, to name two—he allowed them little exposure and resisted all attempts by others to purchase them.
Many other students of Lincoln were eager to examine Herndon’s Lincoln archive during Weik’s lifetime, but none of the notable Lincoln biographers of the time, such as Ida M. Tarbell, William E. Barton, or Carl Sandburg, was granted access. When Weik died in 1929, the bulk of the collection was bought by a combine of dealers as a speculation, and after changing hands and remaining on the market for a number of years, the documents were acquired by the Library of Congress in 1941.
But the microfilm availability of this material has not been a satisfactory solution to the problem of access. When the microfilming of historical documents first came into general use in the 1930s, the historian Julian P. Boyd published an essay declaring that the need for printed editions of such material was henceforth at an end, that the availability of the document itself on microfilm would remove all future need for printed editions.
The Herndon-Weik Collection at the Library of Congress shows the value of documentary editions. For one thing, these handwritten documents are sometimes very hard to locate on the microfilm, the effort often necessitating the scanning of hundreds of documents to locate one. And once located, the documents are frequently very hard to read. The omnipresent hand of Herndon himself, especially when employed in taking down a statement at white heat, can be stubbornly illegible, so that someone unfamiliar with Herndon’s hand might spend hours deciphering a single document and still not be sure that the text thus retrieved is accurate. A further difficulty is the uneven visual quality of the microfilm, for not all of the images are sufficiently in focus to be read with confidence.
As countless Lincoln researchers have discovered, there are other problems. The card index prepared by the Library of Congress, for example, is limited to names of letter writers or interviewees and is neither entirely accurate nor complete. The chronological arrangement is unreliable and subject to strange, unaccountable lapses. The individual leaves of letters and interviews are sometimes maddeningly out of order, while leaves of other documents have become widely separated and appear as fugitives or fragments. Some letters and interviews that were collected by Herndon have ended up in the part of the collection given over to the personal papers of Weik. All these difficulties plague the use of a collection that sprawls over several long reels of microfilm. And to crown the confusion, the collection itself has been reorganized, so that the researcher who needs to examine the originals soon discovers that they are currently arranged in a somewhat different order from that on the microfilm. Readers of the present edition are therefore warned that the foliation numbers assigned to the documents by the Library of Congress and duly recorded here do not appear in the microfilm currently available, as they were added to the documents after the film was made.
Another barrier to full and effective use of these documents has been the pall of suspicion that was cast over Herndon and his informant testimony even before the material became generally available. Disturbed by the uncertainties that attend reminiscence as historical evidence and by the way such things as the Ann Rut-ledge story had taken on too much importance and "usurped the spotlight," the leading Lincoln scholars of the second quarter of the twentieth century, led by Paul
xxiM. Angle and James G. Randall, forcefully called into question the reliability of both Herndon and the evidence given by his informants.
Taking up the critique of Herndon’s efforts, his biographer, David Donald, outlined some of the practical difficulties: " To collect historical data through oral interviews, though sometimes necessary, is always hazardous. The reminiscences of a graybearded grandfather have to be guided or they are likely to become incoherent rambling. Yet in controlling an interview, it is very difficult not to influence the informant. To ask some questions is to suggest the answers desired."
Such considerations seriously dampened confidence in Herndon’s informant testimony for succeeding generations of Lincoln scholars. Some went so far as to regard Herndon as hopelessly biased and unscrupulous in his handling of evidence, but the principal concern was the quality and reliability of testimony so heavily based on memory. Randall’s judgment of the Ann Rutledge testimony in 1945 would prove the prevailing sentiment:
The historian must use reminiscence, but he must do so critically. Even close-up evidence is fallible. When it comes through the mists of many years some of it may be true, but a careful writer will check it with known facts. Contradictory reminiscences leave doubt as to what is to be believed; unsupported memories are in themselves insufficient as proof; statements induced under suggestion, or psychological stimulus, as were some of the stories about Lincoln and Ann, call especially for careful appraisal. . . . When faulty memories are admitted the resulting product becomes something other than history; it is no longer to be presented as a genuine record.
The import for Herndon’s evidence was clear: testimony that cannot be confirmed by known facts and reminiscence that is in conflict with other testimony need not be admitted to the historical record. Such a judgment, as intended, effectively
xxiiplaced much of what Herndon had collected in historiographical limbo. So successful was this critique among historians and biographers that even though much of what is known about Lincoln’s pre-presidential years comes directly through Herndon, his name as a biographer has been seriously tarnished, and the evidence he assembled has for many decades been widely regarded with suspicion.
While the prejudice against Herndon and his informant testimony still prevails, historians and biographers generally are much more open to the type of evidence he collected, and reminiscence no longer needs an elaborate defense as a historical source. While its liabilities continue to be well understood, its special importance is more widely recognized, so that reminiscence is nowadays considered essential by the most discerning historians and biographers. In the intervening years, oral history has become a respected subdiscipline of the historical profession, with a canon of its own.
There are, in fact, many indications in the material presented in this edition and elsewhere that Herndon himself was far from naÄve about reminiscence or its pitfalls. As the readers of this work will soon discover, he frequently questioned his informants on what he heard from others, checked up on conflicting accounts, and with certain informants made a point of revisiting their testimony.
xxiiiguard as to what I say, and what all men say. Much of the matter is ten years old, and watch all men, weigh well what is said, search for opportunities, casts of mind, education, and veracities. Follow no man simply because he says so and so. Follow your records, sharply criticizing as you go."
As this passage suggests, Herndon knew from his own experience how memories can fade and become elusive. When his biography was finally in proofs, for example, he developed a concern about his own first glimpse of Abraham Lincoln and wrote to his collaborator: "Be sure that Lincoln Came all the way up to Bogue’s Mill. It seems to me that he did and that, I at that time, saw Lincoln, but be sure that I am right. The records [i.e., his letters and interviews, then in Weik’s possession] will fix it — it has now been 56 years since I saw what now Seems to be the truth to me. Try and get me right. If L Came up to Bogues mill I saw Lincoln & if he did not then I did not see him at Bogues mill."
The letters, interviews, and statements included in this edition all relate to William H. Herndon’s biographical project, but they are limited, with few exceptions, to those that purport to provide information or informed opinion about Abraham Lincoln. The great majority of these documents were received or taken down by Herndon himself, but his own personal recollections of Lincoln are outside the scope of this work. A respectable number of documents containing informant testimony resulted from the work of his collaborator, Jesse W. Weik. Weik continued his Lincoln inquiries after completion of the collaborative biography, but letters and interviews that he collected are restricted in this work to those acquired in the service of Herndon’s overall project, which began in 1865 and ended with publication of the revised edition of their biography in 1892. The materials on Lincoln collected by Weik after that date for other projects are therefore not included. Correspondents who merely supplied copies of Lincoln’s letters are ignored. These selection criteria effectively exclude from the present work a very substantial portion of Herndon’s and Weik’s papers, so that students interested in the progress and details of Herndon’s biographical project, in Herndon’s own writing on Lincoln, or in the material on Lincoln that Weik acquired after the appearance of the revised edition will need to supplement this edition with a wider array of documents.
Readers of the material presented here will readily perceive that the pertinence and quality of the testimony offered by Herndon’s informants vary widely. Not surprisingly, witnesses are often demonstrably wrong in their recollections of fact. Particularly in such unforgiving matters as dates, informants are often in error (though perhaps a more remarkable circumstance is how often they are right). It
xxivis precisely this known degree of error, together with the notoriously treacherous character of human memory, that makes the assessment and evaluation of such evidence so problematic. Some, but by no means all, of the errors of fact have been noted by the editors. While it is widely agreed among historians and biographers of Lincoln that Herndon’s materials must be used carefully and selectively, no clear consensus has emerged on the criteria that should be employed. Don E. Fehren-bacher, a noted Lincoln scholar who has dealt critically with one aspect of this problem—"judging the authenticity of recollected utterances"—has concluded that "there is no simple formula" in such matters and that "every recollection of spoken words is a separate problem in historical method."
The editors’ aim has not been to pass judgment on the merits of the evidence but rather to put the students of Lincoln’s life into possession of the documents and, where possible, to provide information needed for better understanding and evaluating their content. In addition to annotating certain matters in the text that seem to call for explanation or comment, the editors have attempted to provide, to the extent that it could be located, pertinent biographical information for each informant. This information is in the "Register of Informants" that follows the documents. While the biographical data is often of necessity quite meager, it is offered to aid the reader in gauging the informant’s relationship to Lincoln and to the people and events reported on. It goes without saying that, in many instances, much more information is needed to accurately judge the character of the testimony.
In his second lecture on discoveries and inventions, Abraham Lincoln observed that the invention of writing made possible the preservation of information and ideas whose value or usefulness, even if not fully understood at the time, might thereby be realized and exploited by others far into the future. The invention of printing, Lincoln went on to note, vastly extended this benefit to society, for "consequently a thousand minds were brought into the field where there was but one before."