Page images

right on practicing law as if nothing had ever happened." He lingered a moment as if to take a last look at the old quarters, and then passed through the door into the narrow hallway. I accompanied him downstairs. . . Grasping my hand warmly and with a fervent "Good-bye," he disappeared down the street, and never came back to the office again.


The Later Herndon


It is not designed to give a detailed account of the life of Mr. Herndon, but only such part of it as had to do with his great partner and friend. So much of his time, however, was spent first in clearing away misunderstandings of Lincoln before he entered office and afterward, and later in gathering and recording facts for a just and true appraisement of him, that the record is unusually rich. The story has thus a double interest and value, not more for its disclosure of interesting items about Lincoln than for its revelation of the same loyal and self-effacing friend, doing what he could to uphold the hands of his partner while living and standing guard over his memory after death. Such a task was a boon in those lonely later years, when he needed something to divert attention from the going down of the sun.

Hardly had the result of the election been announced than Herndon began a labor which, though unobtrusive and natural, entitles him to our grateful regard. Lincoln, it should be remembered, had never held an executive office, and no one knew what powers he had for such an untried service. His ideas were well known, and his personality had become somewhat familiar through the press, especially in the admirable sketches of him by Scripps and Howells; but his capacity for executive leadership no one knew not even Lincoln himself. Even in ordinary times there would have been some curiosity as to what so inexperienced a man would do, and in view of the startling events which followed in the wake of the election, it was natural that this curiosity should deepen into a profound anxiety. Not only a new man, but a new party was coming into power, and the national sky was dark and angry.

During the campaign, party interests as well as manly impulse had led the Republicans to belittle the Southern threats of disunion. There had been such threats before, and it suited. their purpose now to regard them as so much braggadocio indulged in for political effect. Lowell called the talk of secession a "Mumbo-Jumbo" that might frighten old women but that did not disturb the stock-market. Greeley declared that the South could no more unite upon such a wild scheme than a company of lunatics could conspire to break out of bedlam; while W. T. Sherman, who was a shrewd observer and, in 1860, a resident of Louisiana, advised his brother to "bear the buffets of a sinking dynasty, and even smile at their impotent threats." Douglas, it was thought, had exaggerated the perils of electing Lincoln, whose victory he foresaw from the first. Small wonder, then, that a pall fell over the North when one after another of the Slave States went out of the Union, and hoisted alien flags. Secession swept the South, not without violence used to crush hesitation and dissent, for the revolution was the work of a minority, as revolutions usually are. As the plot thickened, many who had helped to manœuvre the rail-splitter into office began to wonder whether, after all, he was the man for such an hour.

From far and near letters began to pour in upon Herndon, as the man who knew Lincoln better than any one else, asking what manner of man his partner was. Lincoln's task was one that might easily bewilder and appall: before him was disunion; behind him were fear and fainting hearts; around him was treachery. But Herndon knew that, whatever his skill in executive art, he had the qualities most in request for the hour unbending firmness and loyalty to principle, unshakable courage, unwavering integrity, and a caressing human sympathy. His letter in reply to Senator Henry Wilson is typical of many that he wrote during those awful days of suspense, remarkable at once for its insight, its analysis, and for its faith in his partner:

1 Life of Seward, by F. Bancroft, Vol. I, pp. 551-2 (1900).

Hon. Henry Wilson.

Springfield, Ill., Dec. 21, 1860.

[ocr errors]

Dear Sir: I know Lincoln better than he knows himself. I know this seems a little strong, but I risk the assertion. Lincoln is a man of heart - - aye, as gentle as a woman's and as tender - but he has a will strong as iron. He therefore loves all mankind, hates slavery and every form of despotism. Put these together love for the slave, and a determination, a will, that justice, strong and unyielding, shall be done when he has the right to act - and you can form your own conclusion. Lincoln will fail here, namely, if a question of political economy - if any question comes up which is doubtful, questionable, which no man can demonstrate, then his friends can rule him: but when on Justice, Right, Liberty, the Government, the Constitution, and the Union, then you may all stand aside: he will rule then, and no man can move him no set of men can do it. There is no failure here. This is Lincoln, and you mark my prediction. You and I must keep the people right; God will keep Lincoln right! Yours truly, W. H. HERNDON. Wilson still had his doubts, but years later he wrote to Herndon admitting that his prediction had come true to the letter. Lincoln at that moment was being tested to the supreme degree, by his own party. Congress, finding disunion a fact, fell upon its knees, and offered the slave owners boundless concessions. It was ready to give slavery new guarantees of extension, to make the fugitive slave law more severe, to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific, to admit New Mexico with a slave code, and even to place slavery beyond the reach of constitutional amendment - thus making it, so far as law could make it, eternal. Such a resolution passed both houses of Congress. As Mr. Blaine remarks, it would "have entrenched slavery securely in the organic law of the land."1 Compromise was the order of the day, and even Seward seemed to tremble in silence. The Crittenden plan would have cut off the head of the Republican party, and yet such papers as the Albany Journal and the New York Times "began to perform the famous feat of St. Denys, walking and also talking with sev1 Twenty Years of Congress, Vol. I, pp. 258-274 (1884).

ered head held in the hand." Lincoln had advocated compromise in years gone by, and had been almost the last man to give it up, but now he would have none of it. His letters during this ordeal show what granitic firmness was in the man:

To Kellogg he wrote: Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. The instant you do, they have us under again; all our labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done over. The tug has come, and better now than later.

To E. B. Washburne: Prevent, as far as possible, any of our friends from demoralizing themselves and our cause by entertaining propositions for compromise of any sort on slavery extension. There is no possible compromise upon it but which puts us under again, and leaves all our work to be done over again.

To J. P. Hale: If we surrender, it is the end of us and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.

This was the last desperate effort of the Slave Power to threaten, cozen, and bribe both the friends of the Union and the enemies of slavery; but Lincoln stood like a rock. What Herndon feared was that, at the very last, the standard of the party, which he had fought to hold aloft, would be lowered by ignominious cowardice, and that Lincoln would have his hands tied when he entered office. The very thought of it made his heart quiver with indignation and fear. Hence his letter to Senator Trumbull, breathing intense feeling, while expressing his contempt for the office-seekers who besieged him for notes of recommendation : 2

1 Abraham Lincoln, by D. J. Snider, p. 480 (1908).

2 This letter is part of a long correspondence between Mr. Herndon and Senator Trumbull for they were intimate friends - beginning in 1856 and continuing until 1866, which, by the kindness of Messrs. Horace White and J. W. Weik, is now in my possession. It resembles the cor respondence with Parker, dealing with the same ideas and scenes, but less elaborately, as it was unnecessary to describe the situations to Senator Trumbull. The letters have the same vividness and animation, but are less valuable as pictures of the period. It seems, however, that

« PreviousContinue »