Early biographer had ties to Coweta

by W. Winston Skinner

William Henry Herndon was Abraham Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, Ill. – and later his biographer.

Herndon — who also was probably related distantly to the Herndon family who settled in Coweta County in 1800s — came up during Dr. Kenneth W. Noe’s talk on Lincoln at the University of West Georgia on Tuesday.

“Herndon hated Mary,” Noe said. The president’s widow didn’t care for Herndon either.

“After the war, Herndon collected information. Some of the people were remembering things that happened 30 or 40 years before,” Noe said. Among the stories Herndon preserved was that of Lincoln’s New Salem romance with Ann Rutledge and his lesser known courtship of Mary Owens.

Noe noted scholars today are divided on Herndon’s work.

“Abraham Lincoln: A Biography” by Benjamin P. Thomas — published in 2008 — “is considered to be the standard” among modern Lincoln tomes.

Carl Sandburg’s popular biography of Lincoln is worthwhile “for great literature,” Noe said, but not for fact-checking. “He’s a poet. That tendency’s there.”

A native of Greensburg, Ky., Herndon came with his family to Springfield, Ill. as a boy. He and Lincoln opened a law practice together in the Illinois state capital in the 1840s.

Their law office is a tourist attraction today — a short walk from the Old State Capitol, which also has been restored as a museum.

Lincoln and Herndon both were Whigs who joined the emerging Republican Party. Herndon was staunchly opposed to slavery — more so than his law partner. Herndon sometimes painted himself as a prod to Lincoln’s conscience with regard to manumission.

The 1889 biography, “Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life,” was written by Herndon with a collaborator, Jesse W. Weik. The three-volume set covered many topics that were generally not included in the almost hagiographic biographies typical on those days.

Herndon’s family was from Virginia. In a 2008 interview, Virginia genealogist Jill Herndon said most people with a Herndon ancestor in America are kin to each other. “What works for you is that most of the Herndons are related,” Jill Herndon said. “This is not like tracking ‘Smith,’ not at all. It is a relatively finite universe.”

The Herndon family has a number of prominent members including John Herndon “Johnny” Mercer, a Savannah songwriter known for such tunes as “Moon River.” Another well-known member of the clan was William Lewis Herndon, a 19th century naval hero whose daughter, Ellen, was the wife of Pres. Chester Arthur.

One branch of the family settled in Haralson, which straddles the Coweta-Meriwether line, in the 1800s. Many Herndon descendants still live in Coweta County.

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