William Herndon
William Herndon.jpg
Herndon, ca. 1875.
William Henry Herndon

(1818-12-25)December 25, 1818
DiedMarch 18, 1891(1891-03-18) (aged 72)
OccupationLawyer, biographer
Known forPartner and biographer of Abraham Lincoln
Political partyRepublican

William Henry Herndon (December 25, 1818 – March 18, 1891) was a law partner and biographer of President Abraham Lincoln. He was an early member of the new Republican Party and was elected mayor of Springfield, Illinois.

Early life

Herndon's birthplace in Greensburg
Herndon's birthplace in Greensburg

Herndon was born the first child of Archer G. Herndon (1795–1867) and his wife, on December 25, 1818, in Greensburg, Kentucky. The family moved to Illinois in 1820. Another child was born to Archer and his wife in Macon County, Illinois. By the spring of 1821 the family was living in Sangamon County. When William was five, the family settled in the German Prairie settlement located five miles northeast of Springfield. Two more children were born to the family there.

Herndon's father built the first tavern in Springfield and was engaged in other forms of mercantile business from 1825 to 1836. He was also involved in politics as state senator, and was one of the men instrumental in having the state capital moved to Springfield.[1][2][3]

William, known as "Billy" at the time, worked for his father at the Indian Queen hotel before he attended college. It was one of the first hotels in Springfield.[4]

Marriage and children

On March 26, 1840, Herndon married Mary J. Maxcy in Sangamon County. Mary's family were also early Illinois settlers; her grandfather and step-grandmother arrived in 1827 and Mary's immediate family arrived in 1834. Mary was born in Kentucky on July 27, 1822, to Maria Cook Maxcy and James Maxcy, a veteran of the War of 1812. James' father, Revolutionary War veteran Joel Maxcy, arrived in Sangamon County in 1827 with his second wife and died the following month.[2][3]

Mary and William had six children: James, Annie, Beverly, Elizabeth, Leigh and Mary. Mary Herndon died on August 18, 1860. The following summer, on July 31, 1861, Herndon married Anna Miles with whom he had three more children: Nina Belle, William and Minnie. The family moved to a farm in Fancy Creek Township located six miles north of Springfield.[3][5][nb 1]

Education and career

Herndon attended Illinois College from 1836 to 1837 in Jacksonville, Illinois,[2] but he had "an unsuccessful year".[4] Following this, he returned to Springfield and clerked at the Joshua Speed store, where he often engaged in debates, discussions, and poetry readings with Abraham Lincoln. Their conversations and readings were sometimes practice sessions before presenting material to the Young Men's Lyceum, where both Herndon and Lincoln were members. It was an organization of aspiring young men.[4]

In 1840 Herndon began studying law at the Logan and Lincoln law practice. Although employed at Joshua Speed's store, he studied up to 14 hours per day after work.[4]

In November 1844, Herndon passed the bar examination.[4] In 1854, ten years after beginning his partnership with Lincoln, he was elected mayor of Springfield, Illinois. Both men were members of the Whig Party. In 1856 Herndon was one of the organizers of the fledgling Republican Party after the dissolution of the Whigs. Lincoln also joined the Republican Party, hoping to "fuse" people of disparate political affiliations who wanted to end slavery.[2][6][7]

Herndon loved to learn and developed "one of the best private libraries in Springfield" including works by historians, economists, humanists, free-thinkers and philosophers.[8]

Herndon enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle well into middle age due to the successful law firm and his various elected and appointed offices. After the Civil War he suffered severe financial reversals due to bad investments, bank failures, excessive generosity to relatives and friends, and his inability to economize when his income declined sharply. By 1869, he was destitute and facing foreclosure on his home.[citation needed]

Abraham Lincoln


In the fall of 1844, Lincoln was tired of being a junior partner. He had worked for senior partners with political ambitions, and Lincoln wanted a younger partner to whom he could relate. Surprising both his wife and Herndon, in October Lincoln invited his friend to form a partnership.[2][4] Lincoln appreciated Herndon's friendship, loyalty, shared political beliefs and conscientious study. Lincoln said that Herndon "was my man always above all other men on the globe."[9] Herndon did not disappoint his friend. He contributed to the practice by performing research for his older and more experienced partner, building the firm's law library, and overseeing young men who came to study law (read the law) at their office.[8]


Herndon was a much stauncher opponent of slavery than Lincoln and claimed that he helped change Lincoln's views on the subject.[10] He felt that President Lincoln acted too slowly to bring an end to slavery.[11] Herndon felt that the only way to rid the country of slavery was "through bloody revolution."[12]

During political campaigns Herndon made strong points that tended to alienate members of the Republican Party and swing voters. Thus, for the 1860 presidential campaign, Herndon was not involved in direct political activities. However, he executed an important task during that campaign by conducting opposition research in the Illinois State Library to be used against Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 presidential race. Finally, when Lincoln balked against voting for himself, Herndon ensured that he voted on election day.[13][14]

Relationship with the Lincoln family

Through the whole of his partnership and friendship with Lincoln he was never invited to Lincoln's home for dinner due to his contentious relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln. He also admitted that his frustration with Lincoln's overly permissive parenting of his two younger sons, Willie and Tad, whom he recalled as undisciplined and disruptive brats in the law offices, caused some harsh words during their partnership.[15][16]

His final meeting with Lincoln occurred in 1862 when he visited Washington, D.C. Lincoln received him amicably, but he was not invited into the family's private quarters in the White House due to the enmity of Mary Lincoln.[16]


Initial research

Following Lincoln's assassination, Herndon began to collect stories of Lincoln's life from those who knew him. Herndon aspired to write a faithful portrait of his friend and law partner, based on his own observations and on hundreds of letters and interviews he had compiled for the purpose. He was determined to present Lincoln as a man, rather than a saint, and to reveal things that the prevailing Victorian era conventions said should be left out of the biography of a great national hero.[17][18][nb 2]

In particular, Herndon said of Lincoln's "official" biographers, John Nicolay and John Hay: "They are aiming, first, to do a superb piece of literary work; second, to make the story with the classes as against the masses." He felt that this would represent the "real Lincoln about as well as does a wax figure in the museum."[19][20]

Shared research information

Ward Hill Lamon, who was then collaborating with a ghostwriter on a Lincoln biography, approached him for assistance. Herndon provided copies of and access to his original correspondences with Lincoln acquaintances and a written agreement not to publish his own biography of Lincoln for at least ten years in exchange for $2,000 cash and an agreement to receive up to $2,000 of the book's royalties.[21]

Collaboration with Jesse Weik

An older William Herndon.
An older William Herndon.

By the time he was free to release his own biography of Lincoln, a miscellany of personal problems, including continued financial problems and his alcoholism, left him unable to formulate the stacks of papers into a coherent text.[citation needed]

A young man named Jesse W. Weik who had corresponded with Herndon became a good friend. They then collaborated on the biography of Lincoln's life. Weik performed additional research in the 1880s, picking up any new information since Herndon's original research, and rewrote much of Herndon's draft.[22][nb 3]

The collaboration between the two men was often contentious due to extreme creative differences in writing style and in their visions of what type of biography should result; Weik favored a narrative linear form while Herndon wanted essentially a loosely connected volume of reminiscences grouped by type such as domestic life, law practice, political philosophy, etc. However, the two persisted due to a recognition of their complete dependence on each other. Weik depended on Herndon for the source materials and first person accounts of Lincoln, and Herndon on Weik for the energy of creating the manuscript and increasingly for financial support, which guaranteed their continued relationship.[citation needed]

Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, the result of their collaborations, appeared in a three volume edition published by Belford, Clarke & Company in 1889.[23][24][25] The majority of the actual writing was done by Weik, who received full credit as co-author. The book received wildly mixed reviews due to the inclusion of such unvarnished elements as Lincoln's mother's illegitimacy (and even the rumors of Lincoln's own), its sometimes viciously negative portrayal of Herndon's longtime enemy Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's suicidal depression, and other decidedly less than hagiographic accounts of the martyred president who was quickly becoming the most venerated and romanticized figure in American history.[26]

Weik kept the notes gathered during the writing of the book and wrote a follow-up book The Real Lincoln: A Portrait, which included Weik's personal insights and some embarrassing details for Herndon.[22] Weik's family kept them for fifty more years.[citation needed]


Particularly damning was the denunciation of the book by Robert Todd Lincoln, whose grudge against Herndon stemmed largely from Herndon's recounting of Ann Rutledge as the only romantic love of his father's life.[27] Weik felt that Herndon's portrayal of Robert's mother and the Lincoln's domestic life was especially hurtful.[28]

Questionable business practices and financial reversals on the part of the book's publishers, combined with the book's poor initial sales, made the royalties of its two authors very meager, with most of Herndon's share going to repay the frequent small loans advanced to him by Weik.[citation needed]


Herndon died March 18, 1891, at his farm north of Springfield. He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, the same cemetery as the Lincoln Tomb.[2][29]

Herndon's son William, or Willie, died the same day as his father. Herndon died of la grippe (influenza) and his son Willie had la grippe that turned into pneumonia. At that time, William H., his wife Anna, Willie M. and their daughters Nina and Millie were at home. Herndon's wife Anna died less than two years later.[5]


He was portrayed by

Herndon was portrayed in many films for decades.[36]

See also


  1. ^ Biographical notes for Herndon in the Herndon-Weik collection of Lincolniana at The Library of Congress records that Mary Maxcy died in 1861 and Herndon married Anna Miles in 1862.[2]
  2. ^ Herndon's research techniques of seeking out first hand interviews and information seem unremarkable today but were almost unheard of by 19th century biographical standard. The raw material for Herndon's biography of Lincoln included correspondence, interviews, recollections, notes, newspaper clippings and other material. Included in such primary material are:
    • An interview with Mary Todd Lincoln in 1871, two long interviews with Dennis Hanks (Lincoln's cousin, who lived with Lincoln growing up), and hundreds of letters and notes from Herndon to Weik between 1 October 1881 and 27 February 1891, containing reminiscences of Lincoln's life.
    • Information from Lincoln's family members, schoolmates, neighbors in New Salem and Springfield, law partners, colleagues at the bar and in the Illinois legislature, political party allies, and White House associates. Representative names include Ninian Wirt Edwards (brother-in-law), Kate Roby Gentry (schoolmate), Mentor Graham (teacher), John Hay, whose letter of 5 September 1866 discusses Lincoln's daily life in the White House and ends with the statement that he was "the greatest character since Christ," John B. Helm (store clerk), Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln (stepmother), Stephen T. Logan (law partner), Leonard Swett (lawyer), Frances Wallace (sister-in-law), and Robert L. Wilson (one of the "Long Nine," a group of tall Whigs, including Lincoln, who served together in the Illinois legislature in the 1830s).
    • Information organized by such headings as "Lincoln's Development," "Lincoln's Courtship with Miss Owens," "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates," "Miss Rutledge and Lincoln," and "Lincoln's Ways."[citation needed]
  3. ^ At some point in the late 1870s, Herndon began a correspondence with an Indiana-born Lincoln admirer named Jesse W. Weik. By this time of his life, a growing number of Lincoln enthusiasts (including many like Weik who were children when Lincoln died) had written to Herndon seeking any type of Lincoln memorabilia, especially personal effects and autographs, and Herndon often obliged free of charge. When he supplied the young Weik with a Lincoln autograph from one of the stacks of legal documents in his possession, the grateful young man continued writing the old man and a friendship began that would result in the completion of the long-delayed Lincoln biography.[citation needed] Weik, an aspiring writer, began to meet frequently with the elderly Herndon both at Herndon's farm north of Springfield and later at Weik's family's home in Greencastle, Indiana, where Weik's father owned a general store and Herndon became a frequent guest. Herndon freely conceded that he was unable to complete the biography on his own and must have help if it was ever to reach fruition; thus he helped the worshipful young Weik by supplying his materials and providing constant clarification and elaboration on his own memories of Lincoln.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Joe DeSpain (1984). "Kentucky Historic Resources Inventory: William H. Herndon House". National Park Service.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Herndon-Weik collection of Lincolniana, circa 1824–1933 – Biographical Notes for William Herndon". Library of Congress. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c Newton Bateman (1912). Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois, Volume 3. Munsell Publishing Company. pp. 1303–1304.
  4. ^ a b c d e f David Herbert Donald (2011). We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. Simon & Schuster. pp. 67–68. ISBN 978-0743254700.
  5. ^ a b "Anna Miles Herndon (1836–1893)". Find a Grave. Retrieved March 24, 2013.
  6. ^ David Herbert Donald (2011). We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. Simon & Schuster. pp. 78–80. ISBN 978-0743254700.
  7. ^ Larry D. Mansch (2007). Abraham Lincoln, President-Elect: The Four Critical Months from Election to Inauguration. McFarland. p. 41. ISBN 978-0786431021.
  8. ^ a b David Herbert Donald (2011). We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. Simon & Schuster. pp. 69–70. ISBN 978-0743254700.
  9. ^ David Herbert Donald (2011). We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. Simon & Schuster. p. 69. ISBN 978-0743254700.
  10. ^ David Herbert Donald (2011). We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. Simon & Schuster. pp. 79–80, 82. ISBN 978-0743254700.
  11. ^ Facts On File, Incorporated (2009). Abraham Lincoln. Infobase Publishing. p. 57. ISBN 978-1438126128.
  12. ^ Larry D. Mansch (2007). Abraham Lincoln, President-Elect: The Four Critical Months from Election to Inauguration. McFarland. p. 6. ISBN 978-0786431021.
  13. ^ David Herbert Donald (2011). We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends. Simon & Schuster. pp. 84–85. ISBN 978-0743254700.
  14. ^ We're with Nobody: Two Insiders Reveal the Dark Side of American Politics. Harper Collins: Alan Huffman, Michael Rejebian. 2012. pp. PT19. ISBN 978-0062098801.
  15. ^ David Herbert Donald (1996). Lincoln. Simon & Schuster. pp. 159–160. ISBN 068482535X.
  16. ^ a b David Herbert Donald (1948). Lincoln's Herndon. Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 188–189.
  17. ^ Keith A. Erekson (2012). Everybody's History: Indiana's Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President's Past. Univ of Massachusetts Press. pp. 58–61, 72. ISBN 978-1558499157.
  18. ^ Don Edward Fehrenbacher (1987). Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays. Stanford University Press. p. 183. ISBN 0804713294.
  19. ^ William Henry Herndon, Emanuel Herz (1940). "The" Hidden Lincoln: From the Letters Nd Papers of William H. Herndon. Blue Ribbon Books. p. 15.
  20. ^ John Nichols (2011). The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism. Verso Books. ISBN 978-1844678211. Herndon with the classes as against the masses.
  21. ^ David Herbert Donald (1948). Lincoln's Herndon. Alfred A. Knopf. p. 253.
  22. ^ a b Michael Burkhimer (2003). 100 Essential Lincoln Books. Cumberland House Publishing. pp. 42–43. ISBN 158182369X.
  23. ^ "Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life – volume 1". Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  24. ^ "Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life – volume 2". Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  25. ^ "Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life – volume 3". Internet Archive. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  26. ^ Josh Zeitz. The Man Who Created the Lincoln We Know 150 years ago, William Herndon set out to write an honest biography of Honest Abe. Here’s what happened, Politico, April 2015
  27. ^ Jason Emerson (2012). Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln. SIU Press. pp. 403–404, 160. ISBN 978-0809390717.
  28. ^ Jason Emerson (2012). Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln. SIU Press. pp. 675, 404. ISBN 978-0809390717.
  29. ^ "William Henry Herndon". Find a Grave. Retrieved March 24, 2013.
  30. ^ "Abraham Lincoln (1930 film)". IMDb. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  31. ^ "Abe Lincoln in Illinois (film)". IMDb. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  32. ^ "Lincoln (TV mini-series)". IMDb. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  33. ^ "Lincoln – 1992 movie". IMDb. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  34. ^ "Saving Lincoln". IMDb. Retrieved March 23, 2013.
  35. ^ "The Gettysburg Address". IMDb. Retrieved March 12, 2017.
  36. ^ "Billy Herndon (Character)". IMDb. Retrieved March 23, 2013.

Further reading

(1) William H. Herndon to Jesse W. Weik, Jan. 16, 1886, Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress
(2) Mary Todd Lincoln to David Davis, Mar. 6, [1867], "Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters," ed. Justin G. Turner and Linda Leavitt Turner (1972)