Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Herndon on Lincoln: An Unknown Interview with a List of Books in the Lincoln & Herndon Law Office

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Herndon on Lincoln: An Unknown Interview with a List of Books in the Lincoln & Herndon Law Office

Article excerpt

William Henry Herndon (25 December 1818-18 March 1891) was born in Green County, Kentucky, the son of Archer Gray and Rebecca (Day) Johnson Herndon. His family first moved to Madison County, Illinois, and then on to German Prairie in Central Illinois before settling at Springfield in 1823, where his father-beginning in 1825-ran the Indian Queen Tavern. In 1836, Archer sent his son to the preparatory department of Illinois College at Jacksonville. However, after a year, "Billy" returned to Springfield, at his father's insistence. That campus atmosphere was too anti-slavery for his Democratic father. Archer was also a member of the noted "Long Nine" in the Illinois General Assembly, and thus, "Billy" met Representative Abraham Lincoln early in life.

At first, young Herndon clerked for Joshua Fry Speed on the west side of the Public Square and slept upstairs over the store with Speed, Lincoln, and Charles R. Hurst. Later, Herndon studied law with Lincoln, and when Lincoln's partnership with Stephen Trigg Logan dissolved, Lincoln asked Herndon to join him. Even Herndon did not know why Lincoln chose him.

After Lincoln went to Washington in February 1861, Herndon began to practice law with Charles S. Zane and eventually moved the old Lincoln & Herndon office from the back to the front of the building. It is described below and in footnotes to this important interview. (By 1868, Zane had left Herndon, who then replaced him with Alfred Orendorff.)

In July 1867, a gentleman using the initials "V. H." arrived in Springfield to interview Herndon concerning his famous association with Abraham Lincoln. This man could well have been V. T. Hermann, a printer living at 41 Baltimore Street in Cincinnati. He is the only person listed in the Cincinnati directory that fits the journalism or printing association that seems to be required for this informative interviewer.1 In due course, this vital information was printed in The Cincinnati Commercial on 25 July 1867, on page 2, in columns 1-2. This newspaper seems to have had a wholesome interest in Lincoln stories. On 18 October 1871, on page 4, it published the memories of T. D. Jones, who had sculpted Lincoln from life in Springfield.

Their correspondent's interview in 1867 has not previously been used by Lincoln scholars, yet it contains a wealth of information about the office which Herndon shared with Lincoln. For instance, we now know that their tables were covered with green oilcloth, not felt, what general books were in the office, etc. "Billy" also pegs the date that Lincoln & Herndon moved to the west side of the Square: 1857. That time coincides with the completion of the new buildings, which replaced those that had previously been destroyed by fire in 1855.2

Only that portion of the interview concerning the law office has been included in this publication. An appendix has been added to this interview to give-if possible-the full names of the authors and titles listed by the correspondent. Many of these volumes have not previously been identified as works read by Abraham Lincoln.




Correspondence Cincinnati Commercial.

Springfield, ILL., July, 1867.


In the second building south from the northwest corner of the pleasant little Capitol Square of Springfield,3 the second floor, back room, was Mr. Lincoln's law office, when chosen President. The same spot in the former building,4 upon whose embers this has been erected,5 was where [Lincoln] the student slept when he first came to town in 1837, the year of the christening [cornerstone laying] of the Capitol, to read law under the invitation of Hon. John T. Stuart. Great soul's [sic] ensphere themselves, and association doubtless had much to do with the man's "return" to the youth's bed-room.

"The office" is approached by a dark and narrow stairway and a couple of steps across a gloomy little landing show the visitor through a dingy glass door where Lincoln, by the burnt light from a dull brick wall through two stingy windows, struggled,

"As far as might be to carve out Free space for every human doubt. …

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