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William Herndon, Descendant of Lincoln's Law Partner, Dies

By Edward Epstein

Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, May 9, 2024


William Henry Herndon Sr., the great-great-great grandson of the man with the identical name who was Abraham Lincoln's law partner, friend, and biographer, died on May 6 in a hospital in Springfield, Illinois. He was 83.



Mr. Herndon was born in Springfield in 1940 and spent most of his life in the city, which is Illinois' capital. His father's name was Jesse Leigh Herndon. But with Mr. Herndon's passing, the historic name lives on since one of his survivors is a son, William Henry Herndon Jr., who lives in Florida.


The original William Herndon made a curious choice to become Lincoln's law partner in the fall of 1844. Lincoln wanted to dissolve his partnership with Stephen T. Logan and probably could have teamed up with an experienced attorney. Instead, he turned to a man whom Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame describes as an "inexperienced, erratic, impulsive attorney nearly 10 years his junior."


One theory is that Lincoln took a paternal interest in Herndon, who had just gone through a bitter falling-out with his pro-slavery father, who objected to Herndon's uncompromising anti-slavery views and virtually abandoned him. Herndon himself said that "Lincoln picked me up out of the gutter and made a man of me," Burlingame wrote in volume one of Abraham Lincoln: A Life, his epic biography of the 16th president.


Their law partnership would endure, right until the time Lincoln departed for Washington as president-elect on February 11, 1861, the day before his 52nd birthday. He instructed Herndon to keep their office open in downtown Springfield and, according to Herndon, said that if he returned after his presidency, he wanted to resume their practice.


Herndon's friendship with Lincoln became strained because he and Mary Todd never saw eye to eye.


Herndon, like Lincoln, was active in founding the Republican Party in Illinois and helped Lincoln in his campaigns for the U.S. Senate. He played a less prominent role in the 1860 presidential campaign and saw Lincoln only once as president, in 1862, when he visited the White House. Notably, he was not invited to the family living quarters, probably because Mary did not want to see him.


After Lincoln's assassination, Herndon began work on what would become a multi-year project that resulted in Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, published in 1889. His co-author was Jesse W. Weik, who apparently did most of the actual writing based on Herndon's long years of research.


The reaction was mixed since Herndon included unproven assertions, such as that Lincoln's mother was born out of wedlock, and an uncompromising portrait of his nemesis, Mary Todd Lincoln. Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of the Lincolns' four sons to survive to adulthood, was particularly outspoken in denouncing the work. Herndon died in 1891.


Despite the criticisms, Herndon's biography is essential for scholars researching Lincoln's life.


William Henry Herndon Sr., who died this week, was an Air Force and Marine Corps veteran and had worked for Sangamon County and the local electric utility. He will be buried in Springfield, according to his death notice in the Springfield Journal Register.


Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Historical Society


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