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07.15.02 Lincoln’s Herndon, a biography by David Herbert Donald, published in 1948 by Alfred A. Knopf. Inc. and reprinted by others.

Notes Concerning the Author:

David Herbert Donald (1920-2009) was born in Goodman, Mississippi and received his bachelor degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi and went on to get his PhD, under noted Lincoln scholar James G. Randall, at the University of Illinois, in 1946.  “His dissertation eventually became his first book, Lincoln’s Herndon, which is also on the Society’s Recommended Reading List.  Following attainment of his PhD, Donald taught at Columbia University and Johns Hopkins.  The history of the southern States and historical relations between the sections was his greatest professional interest.  As he was finishing his second volume on Sumner, he served as President of the Southern Historical Society, based at the University of Georgia (1969-1970).  Following the publication of his second volume on Sumner, Donald went to Harvard University, where he taught until retirement.  He was at Harvard when he wrote Lincoln.  He died in 2009 at the age of 88 years.

Three of his books are on the Society’s Recommended Reading List: Lincoln’s Herndon (1948), Charles Sumner (1960 and 1970) and Lincoln (1996).


To understand the politics of political sectionalism that swept across the northern States between the early 1850’s and the 1860 election, and gave rise to the sectional Republican Party and the secession of seven States, four biographies are essential.  One is the biography of Stephen Douglas of Illinois (we recommend Johannsen’s of 1973).  Another is the biography of Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania (we recommend Current’s of 1942).  The third is the biography of Charles Sumner (we recommend Donald’s of 1960 and 1970) and the fourth is the biography of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois (we recommend three here — the one by Donald, the one by DiLorenzo and the one by law partner Billy Herndon).  And what about Herndon?  His life will be of interest, too.  So it is on the Society’s list and discussed below.

William (Billy) Herndon (1818-1891) was born to Archer Herndon and wife Rebecca in Green County, Kentucky.  The baby’s father had been born in Virginia and the mother was a native Kentuckian.  Like many Kentuckians, Archer soon decided to migrate to the Sangamon country in central Illinois, for the “rich bottoms and black soil” was too much to resist.  They arrived in this promised land when little Billy was three years old.  But Billy was not long on the Sangamon farm, for his father decided to relocate to the growing town of Springfield, also in central Illinois, and two years later he opened its “first tavern-hotel of any pretension.”   Little Billy as 6 years old at that time.

Archer paid for Billy to attend the local village grammar school followed by a “privately-owned high school,” which he attended “for two or three years.”  Billy did well in school and liked books.  So Archer “decided to send him to Jacksonville, where, since 1829, a group of devout Yale graduates had been building Illinois College, a New Haven in the West.”  Billy entered in the fall of 1836 and history shows that his experiences at Jacksonville would play a major role in shaping his future political views and also, indirectly, a significant role in shaping the political views of his future law partner, Abe Lincoln.

“All the prominent members of the Illinois College faculty were originally from New England, and all became converts to Abolitionism.”  And, without a doubt Herndon was influenced by the faculty’s attitudes toward slavery in the southern States.  But he only attended the school for one year and did not return in the fall of 1837.  Perhaps his college was cut short by Herndon’s father, who was and would remain a lifelong Democrat, “identified with the True Jacksonian Democracy.”  But history suggests that the Abolitionism influence of that year of college would outweigh the 18 years Herndon lived at home.

In 1840, at the age of 21 years, Billy married 16-year-old Mary Maxcy of Springfield.  It would be a happy marriage with loving children.  Soon afterward Billy began reading law in the office of Logan & Lincoln.  Three years later, in 1844 he was admitted to the Illinois bar.  At the same time senior partner Logan told Lincoln that he wanted to dissolve their law practice so he could form another with his son.  Lincoln, who only wanted to work in a two-man law office, immediately went to Herndon and asked, “Billy, do you want to enter into partnership with me in the law business?”  The offer was generous — a 50/50 partnership.  Billy gratefully accepted.  They would be a two man law office from that day until March 1861, until the day Lincoln departed for Washington, D. C.  As the practice evolved, Herndon remained in Springfield, meeting with clients and preparing legal papers, while Lincoln travelled the circuit attending court and handling matters out of town.  This allowed Herndon to spend much time with wife and children, but kept Lincoln away from wife Mary and their children for much of the time.  This seemed to suit both men from the start.

In this abstract we jump 10 years ahead to 1854, the year David Donald calls “the busiest of Billy’s life.”  Springfield, population 6,218, elected Herndon to be their mayor.  Herndon saw this as his opportunity to crusade for causes he embraced.  During his 12-month term of office, among other actions, he imposed “city-wide prohibition.”  He was not re-elected mayor.  Illinois was full of political excitement that year.  Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas pushed the “Kansas-Nebraska” act through Congress and propaganda over “Bleeding Kansas” begin the sectional political fire that would give rise to the Republican Party across the northern States and fuel passions for State Secession across the southern States.  So Herndon merely reapplied his passion for Prohibition to a new passion for Abolition.

Was Herndon attracted to Abolitionism in the interest of helping African Americans?  One would not think so based on his record.  In 1848 he had joined with the majority of Illinois voters in passing an amendment to the Illinois State Constitution which prohibited any African American to migrate into Illinois and remain to live there.  Herndon was primarily an Exclusionist.

But Herndon became the leader in connecting Lincoln to the Abolitionists of the New England States.  He corresponded with many notables.  He travelled to the region and met with them.  He told them about his law partner and planted seeds that would develop into — exceptional newspaper coverage throughout the northern States of speeches delivered during the 1858 Douglas-Lincoln debates — an invitation to speak at the Cooper Union Institute in New York City — a Lincoln speaking tour of the north-eastern States — these events, by 1860, enabling the notion in the north-east that the new sectional Republican Party could build a successful campaign around this western lawyer who had never managed more than a two-man office or held more than a one-term stint in the Federal House.

Herndon, the more intellectual of the two men, played a major role in promoting his law partner for high office.  Because of that we need to understand Herndon.  There is another reason to understand Herndon.  After Lincoln’s death, he wrote the most important biography of Lincoln from birth to departure to Washington, D. C. to take the office of President.

David Donald’s biography of Herndon began as his PhD dissertation.  It is the one to read.

Availability of this Book

David Donald’s Lincoln’s Herndon can be obtained as a print book, reprint book and as a Kindle e-book.  Select from a book store or Amazon or similar sources.