No one casts a longer shadow over Lincoln studies than William Henry Herndon.
He had known Lincoln for more than a quarter-century, for 17 of those years he was his law partner. The assassination hit Herndon hard, but the “historians” infuriated him. These “eulogizers,” who, he believed, were really just “blind bat-eyed hero worshippers,” were getting it all wrong. They were advancing personal agendas; they were smoothing over the wrinkles and imperfections in Lincoln’s life. They were creating a myth by sacrificing the living man. Herndon was appalled. He knew he was the one who had to correct their mistakes.
Less than a month after the funeral train arrived in Springfield, Herndon decided to “write & publish the subjective Mr Lincoln…just as he lived, breathed—ate & laughed in this world.” But it would not be easy. He knew very little about Lincoln’s early life and when he tried to recall what Lincoln had told him about those years, he was only able to remark that Lincoln was “the most shut-mouthed man” who ever lived.
But there were people out there who knew the answers. Herndon immediately recognized the need to interview the people who knew Lincoln best, particularly those who knew him during his earliest days in Kentucky and Indiana. That September, Herndon left Springfield and began one of the earliest oral history projects in American history. During the next two weeks, he interviewed the very people Lincoln seemed to speak about the least: his step-mother, cousins, childhood friends, neighbors, and employers. Today, Herndon’s nearly illegible notes offer one of the clearest views of Lincoln’s muddled early life.
More than twenty years after he began researching, Herndon completed his Lincoln biography. He died just two years later and is buried in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.
His tombstone reads:
William H. Herndon
Abraham Lincoln’s Law Partner 17 Years
Dec. 25. 1818—Mar. 18. 1891
The struggles of this age and succeeding ages for God and Man—Religion—Humanity and Liberty with all their complex and grand relations—may they triumph and conquer forever, is my ardent wish and most fervent soul prayer.
Febry 23 1858
Wm. H. Herndon