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Tom Chaney: A Lincoln Friendship Transformed

Of Writers And Their Books: A Lincoln Friendship Transformed. Tom describes Wade Hall's play One Man's Lincoln based on the life of Billy Herndon, Lincoln's long-time law partner. This column first appeared 21 June 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: A Snell Wind and Occasional Smirr

By Tom Chaney

A Lincoln Friendship Transformed

This is a remarkable south-central Kentucky story.

A young man leaves home in Greensburg, Green County, Kentucky.

Like many of his neighbors he looks for better times in a less settled country.

In 1837 he is admitted to the bar in Springfield, Illinois, named state capital that same year.

In the 1840's he is still learning the law when an established attorney of Springfield, a neighbor from his home state, takes him under his wing and into his practice.

They become close friends as well as partners.

For twenty years they work together daily as student and partner. They learn one another's taste in stories, women, the law, and politics.

Abraham prefers the circuit -- riding from court to court in the company of other lawyers and judges.

William keeps the office going. In fact he can get more work done when Abraham is gone than when he is there -- when Abraham's stories don't get in the way.

Abraham proposed to a Lexington, Kentucky, belle transplanted to Springfield, then ducks out of the wedding. William is in the office as a student of the law. Abraham takes refuge with Joshua Speed in Louisville to recover from the depths of depression.

When the wedding does take place a year later, William is not invited and is not welcomed by the new wife at home. He, in fact, sees the marriage as one of honor on the part of his friend Abraham, and revenge on the part of Mary Todd.

But there is still the camaraderie of work at the law -- and politics.

In March of 1861 when Abraham Lincoln leaves the office, bidding "Goodbye" to Billy Herndon for the trip to Washington, his last words to Billy are, "Leave the 'Lincoln and Herndon' shingle in place. When I get back, we'll take up where we left off. If I get back."

Billy Herndon does not see his partner again.

He keeps the law practice going. He drinks too much.

Suddenly his hopes of reunion are dashed by John Wilkes Booth one April night at Ford's Theatre.

Billy Herndon mourns his partner and friend when the funeral train brings Abraham home to Springfield.

Mourning in the only way he knows, Billy devotes the remainder of his life to gathering every scrap of information about his dear friend. Knowing that the story of Lincoln will be told by many others, Herndon says, "I want to tell of Lincoln for the masses, not the classes."

The rest of his life is devoted to telling the story of his friend -- to setting the record straight.

His biography is finished by another to whom he has sold his research to keep alive.

Wade Hall took up Billy Herndon's story and prepared One Man's Lincoln for the stage.

Robert Brock performs Hall's telling at Kentucky Repertory Theatre for a limited run beginning June 25, 2009.

This is a play that must be seen.

As a story of the transformation of friendship, it is without parallel. As another view of the much-viewed Lincoln, it is refreshing. And, like all fine literature, it holds a mirror up to our lives that we may see ourselves the more clearly.

One Man's Lincoln runs only one week [2009]. You will be amply rewarded.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749

This story was posted on 2014-06-22 03:54:22
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