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What He Really Thought of Lincoln: The Discovery of an Unpublished Letter by William F. Herndon

December 4, 2020

Lincoln’s skill as a politician was not immediately appreciated: even his law partner and later biographer once questioned his political savvy. Last year, when we contacted Rail Splitter members to borrow material for our Bicentennial exhibit, we were told of an unpublished archive of correspondence to Illinois politician Richard Yates. The holding consisted of Yates’ retained correspondence -letters written to him that he intentionally kept. And, within this group were several letters referencing Lincoln. Naturally, we were intrigued.

Yates (1815-73) served in the House of Representatives, was Governor during the Civil War (a Republican), and later served in the Senate. We knew that the family sold off letters to Yates written by Lincoln many decades back. We also learned that the large body of his papers got divided among three branches of his family; the State of Illinois acquired one large grouping, others made their way into the market appearing at various auctions over the years. But, the letters in this small trove had never been reviewed … until we got our hands on them!

Most of the correspondence attended to routine matters: political appointments; “favors” for more “favored” constituents (the life-blood of 19th century politics!); and letters written during the War on troop quotas and supplies. Yates distinguished himself as the greatest wartime governor sending more troops to fight in the Union Army than any other.

Of all the missives, one really stood out – which we were proud to display in our exhibit. The letter was written to Yates July 28, 1856 by his good friend William Herndon. At the time of this letter, Yates, who fervently opposed slavery, had just been defeated on his third bid for Congress. Herndon was in his law practice with Lincoln, a partnership which began in 1841. While Herndon held Lincoln in esteem, he took issue with him as politically naive. Herndon had been a staunch opponent of slavery – he thought the Rail Splitter too slow to form a decisive opinion. (In fact Herndon later claimed that he helped change Lincoln’s views on the subject.) In this wonderful missive, now at the Library of Congress, Herndon writes of his own political abilities and the limitations of his partner’s.

“Friend Yates – I this day arrived at home, finding yours of 24th inst. You know I am punctual in this matter; and absense must be my excuse to you. Will you take that excuse?

Mr. Palmer has not officially, or publicly, declined the nomination; but suppose he will before long. I think it would be prudent for him to do so, when it is remembered, that his nomination is not liked by the K.N.’s or Fillmore men. These are curious boys; – honesty I suppose is the ruling power: “honesty my lord”: precisely so friend Yates. This is a great world. The vice of my political life is, and has been, unsuspiciousness; and my political virtue hereafter shall be a steady watchfulness to the end of things. It is not too late to commence is it? I hope not. You ask me if I would not run: I answer, Never, Never. I have seen Lincoln; and have talked over the matter; but he knows no more than you & I do – not so much. He is not, & never was, & never can be, a wire puller; he can drive a nail with power, if a man will hold the head and give its point the cunning direction.

They say Mr. Thornton – the Gen, made a Buchanan speech a few days since. This came to town on Sunday – do not know how this is. Can you not run? The boys say you must & shall run, yet – unalterable – Eh. Dick you did not write that word Who putthat in your letter?

We have had a small split here; but it seems to draw together- ligaments have reached over their nerve hooks; and drew on together the lips of the wound – Easily done this. I made a speech at Middletown in Logan Co. on Saturday – tolerably good one I think.

We think we shall have no trouble here – all will agree to all things except the Presidency – disagree in this badly.”

The K.N.’s referenced were, of course, the Know Nothings, aligned with Millard Fillmore. “Mr. Palmer” was John McAuley Palmer, later a Civil War General and Governor of Illinois. The “Mr. Thornton” was Anthony Thornton, judge, lawyer, Democratic politician, militia officer, who once debated Lincoln.

So, there you go! What Herndon really thought of Old Abe! A political boob, if you will! Fortunate for history, Billy Herndon’s assessment wasn’t exactly accurate. Lincoln could both drive a nail with power and guide a Ship of State!

– William F. Herndon