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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 223


This is the grave of William Herndon.

Born in 1818 in Greensburg, Kentucky, Herndon’s parents moved to the frontier of Illinois in 1820. His father was an early businessman in Springfield, building the city’s first tavern, which was definitely not its last. He also served as a state senator between 1825 and 1836. So it was natural for young William to go into the law and follow his father. He got to know another young rising star of Springfield society, Abraham Lincoln. They became good friends. When Herndon passed the bar in 1844, he began a law partnership with his buddy. Both Herndon and Lincoln were Whigs and both had political ambitions. Herndon became mayor of Springfield in 1854. Both Herndon and Lincoln joined the Republican Party soon after its 1854 founding. They did not agree on everything. Lincoln was kind of wishy-washy on slavery and Herndon was much closer to an abolitionist. Herndon later credited himself with moving Lincoln to a better position on the issue, although who knows. Their friendship also became more formal and less personal over the years, largely because Herndon couldn’t stand Mary Todd Lincoln and really, deeply, profoundly hated how Lincoln raised his sons, who he let wildly play around the law office. To be fair, I sympathize with Herndon on this. Do you want a couple of kids playing games while you are preparing for cases? I would not. In fact, the last time Herndon and Lincoln saw each other was in 1862, when the former visited Washington. Lincoln only received him formally and did not invite him into the family quarters because Mary loathed him so strongly.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon basically named himself the caretaker of Lincoln’s legacy. He wanted to represent the real Lincoln, not the mythological godlike figure he felt the president’s secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, were creating in their biography. So he collected letters and stories from the people Lincoln knew. He tried to get it all in order for a good biography, but Herndon, like so many elites in the Gilded Age up to and very much including General Grant, made horrible investments in scams and lost most of his money. He also developed a problem with the bottle. He finally got it out with a co-author in 1889. It was pretty scandalous because it was anti-hagiographical. First, he held nothing back about how much he hated Mary Todd Lincoln. Second, it noted the fact that Lincoln’s mother was born out of wedlock. These facts were not to be discussed in Victorian America. But again, Herndon wanted the real Lincoln to be represented. That included discussing Lincoln’s depression. This was not the stuff that would get a president’s face blasted into the side of a South Dakota mountain a few decades later. Among those who publicly lambasted the book was Robert Todd Lincoln, largely because Herndon said that Abe didn’t really love Robert’s mother and only truly loved Ann Rutledge, who had died before they could get married. The book did not sell well.

Herndon died in 1891, largely forgotten or disliked if remembered.

William Herndon is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois.

If you would like to see this series cover the friends of presidents, you can donate to cover the expenses here. I would go see Harry Truman’s hangers-on, but I guess he named most of them to the Supreme Court or other major appointed positions. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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