Mark E. Neely Jr.
About a hundred years ago, the two dominant traditions of writing on Abraham Lincoln emerged with the publication of landmark works written by people who had known Lincoln personally and well. One tradition comes from John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln's White House secretaries; the other, from William H. Herndon, his longtime law partner. Neither of these works was critical of Lincoln, and indeed there is no substantial anti-Lincoln tradition. Nicolay and Hay realized as early as 1890 that "the tradition is already complete. The voice of hostile faction is silent, or unheeded; even criticism is gentle and timid." Herndon and the coauthors Nicolay and Hay were all admirers of Lincoln and had all been antislavery Republicans. The assassination of Lincoln in 1865 essentially silenced Lincoln's critics forever. Among the works of serious literature written by professional historians in recent years, only one stands out as sharply critical: Lincoln, the South, and Slavery: The Political Dimension ( 1991), the printed version of a brief series of lectures by Stephen A. Douglas's modern biographer, Robert W. Johannsen.
The two great traditions of writing about Lincoln do not represent romanticism and idealism ( Nicolay and Hay), on the one hand, and warts-and-all realism ( Herndon), on the other. These unfortunate categories come from Benjamin Thomas's Portrait for Posterity: Lincoln and the Biographers ( 1947), but in fact the two represent the differences between works on policy and public life ( Nicolay and Hay) and books on personality and private life ( Herndon).
William Herndon, left behind in Springfield when his law partner went to the White House, was nosy. He was curious about Lincoln's bowel movements and his love life. He searched the record for bastardy in Lincoln's lineage and for