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 The name of William H. Herndon finds frequent mention in these pages, as it must in any study of Abraham Lincoln. With all his faults as a biographer, his astigmatism, his anti-religious prejudice, his intolerance, his bad taste, he is an invaluable source of information concerning his partner and friend, Abraham Lincoln. The publication of the Lamon biography and the Reed lecture brought him into a conflict from which no power on earth could probably have kept him out, and in it he did and said many things which for his own sake and Lincoln's he might better not have said.
But Herndon was no liar. Biased as he was, and himself a free-thinker or perhaps worse, he told the truth in such fashion as to throw it out of perspective, and sometimes told what he believed to be the truth in a passion which compels us to discount some of his testimony. But he did not lie nor intentionally misrepresent.
For twenty years Lincoln and Herndon were law partners, and their partnership was never formally dissolved. Lincoln liked Herndon, but there was no loss of love between Herndon and Mrs. Lincoln. She, if tradition about Springfield is to be believed, disliked him personally for his habits, and possibly also for his politics, for he was an Abolitionist before Lincoln, and a very ardent one at that. Had she known what Herndon was to say about her in later years she might have been more gracious to her husband's junior partner, who had learned some habits at the bar of his father's tavern which he might better not have learned.
Herndon in his later life looked not a little like Lincoln,[Pg 141] and showed no disposition by any change of beard or other device to lessen the resemblance; but in other particulars the two men were most unlike. Herndon was five feet nine, Lincoln more than six feet three. Herndon was impetuous, Lincoln extremely deliberate and cautious to a fault. Herndon was a good judge of human nature and excelled in cross-examination, while he failed in the careful preparation of his cases; Lincoln was a very poor judge of human nature, but reduced his cases to simple principles, and carefully worked up his evidence with deliberate care. Herndon was a great reader; Lincoln seldom read a book through. Herndon spent his money for books and had a valuable library; Lincoln seldom wasted a dollar on a book. Herndon was outspoken; Lincoln was secretive. Herndon wanted all the world to know what he thought about everything; Lincoln kept his ear to the ground and chose his own time for the utterance of his convictions.
We shall never have another as good description of Abraham Lincoln's appearance and manner as that which comes from the pen of Herndon, nor shall we ever obtain better pen pictures of many of the incidents in his career. But Herndon was too good a witness to be a good judge, and he lived too near the stump to behold the tree.
Herndon had already attempted to catechize Dr. Smith,[38] Mr. Lincoln's pastor, concerning his relations with Lincoln, and Smith had replied that he was willing to tell what he knew about Lincoln's faith, but did not choose to make Mr. Herndon his vehicle of communication to the public. This did not tend to increase Herndon's love for the clergy: and when Dr. Holland printed Dr. Reed's lecture, with its letters in which several of the men whom Lamon, on Herndon's authority, had quoted in support of Lamon's declaration, Herndon quickly replied and Holland refused to print his article.
Herndon spilled much ink through a New York newspaper[Pg 142] whose editor later was sent to prison for the circulation of obscene literature, and wrote a number of letters, in each of which he tended to become a little more pronounced.
He scorned the idea that Lincoln had taken strangers into his confidence concerning his faith. He said in a letter to J. E. Remsburg, under date of September 10, 1887, "He was the most secretive, reticent, shut-mouthed man that ever existed."
The Reed lecture infuriated him. He denounced Dr. Reed publicly as a liar, and said many things which a more prudent man would not have said. On November 9, 1882, he issued a broadside, entitled "A Card and a Correction," beginning:
"I wish to say a few short words to the public and private ear. About the year 1870 I wrote a letter to Mr. F. E. Abbott, then of Ohio, touching Mr. Lincoln's religion.[39] In that letter I stated that Mr. Lincoln was an infidel, sometimes bordering on atheism, and I now repeat the same. In the year 1873, the Right Rev. James A. Reed, pastor and liar of this city, gave a lecture on Mr. Lincoln's religion, in which he tried to answer me,—" and more to the same purport.
While Herndon and Lamon were men of quite different, mind and ability, the two men used essentially the same body of material for the making of their books about Lincoln, Herndon having sold copies of all his Lincoln manuscripts to Lamon.
Herndon delivered at least three lectures on Lincoln. The first, and most pop............
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