The Life of Abraham Lincoln: From His Birth to His Inauguration as President. By Ward H. Lamon. Introduction to the Bison Books Edition by Rodney 0. Davis. (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Pp. xxviii, 547. $22.00.)
On the evening of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln attended the performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater. In the play's third act, John Wilkes Booth entered the unguarded presidential box and fatally shot the president in the back of the head with a palm-size derringer, Laid out in a nearby home, Lincoln clung to life through the night, finally expiring early in the morning, attended by a crowd of shocked and horrified government officials. In the wake of Lincoln's death, Secretary of State William H. Seward mused that if Ward Hill Lamon had been present, the tragedy would never have occurred.
An old Illinois friend and fellow lawyer who had practiced law with Lincoln in the Eighth Judicial Circuit, "Hill" Lamon had personally assumed the role of protector of Lincoln's person upon his election as president. Lincoln in turn appointed Lamon marshal of the District of Columbia, where he promptly alienated congressional radicals by enforcing the fugitive slave act. An immense bear of a man, barrelchested, with a stem visage that glares out from daguerreotypes as though about to reach out and throttle you, Lamon looked the part of the forbidding bodyguard. He is habitually described as bristling with weaponry: machete-like bowie knives, brass knuckles, pistols. He kept Lincoln safe throughout the war, repeatedly lecturing the fatalistic president on the necessity of precautions, warnings that Lincoln typically ignored. Lamon was in Richmond, Virginia on April 14 and thus was not on duty when most needed.
Having failed in the end to protect his friend's life, Lamon, in the eyes of many, had the further ill-grace to assassinate Lincoln's character by writing a critical biography of his deceased patron. Settling at the Washington law firm of Jeremiah Black, a former Buchanan administration cabinet member, Lamon struck up a friendship with Jeremiah's son Chauncey. The two young men decided to win fame and riches by writing a two volume Lincoln biography, with Black doing the writing, and Lamon providing the Lincoln material. To better accomplish that purpose, Lamon acquired William Herndon's "Lincoln Record," a fund of Lincolniana he had elicited after the war.
Black took Herndon's material and molded it into the first volume, which takes Lincoln's life up to the presidency A new paperback edition of this work has just been published by the University of Nebraska Press, with an introduction by Rodney 0. Davis. Black had imbibed the Democratic partisanship of his father, and he eagerly seized upon the more controversial elements of Herndon's research. As Albert V. House, Jr. put it: "too much space was devoted to Lincoln's love affairs, questionable ancestry, and lack of conventional religious beliefs." Black wrote "in a belligerent fashion." Rodney Davis notes Black's "overdone realism" and tendency to "emphasize the unattractive and disreputable in Lincoln's early life. …