This article discusses how John Hay and John Nicolay, Lincoln's two private secretaries, helped create the image we have of Abraham Lincoln:
“The boys,” as the president affectionately called them, became Lincoln’s official biographers. Enjoying exclusive access to his papers—which the Lincoln family closed to the public until 1947 (the 21st anniversary of the death of Robert Todd Lincoln)— they undertook a 25-year mission to create a definitive and enduring historical image of their slain leader. The culmination of these efforts—their exhaustive, ten-volume biography, serialized between 1886 and 1890—constituted one of the most successful exercises in revisionism in American history. Writing against the rising currents of Southern apologia, Hay and Nicolay pioneered the “Northern” interpretation of the Civil War—a standard against which every other historian and polemicist had to stake out a position.
Hay and Nicolay helped invent the Lincoln we know today—the sage father figure; the military genius; the greatest American orator; the brilliant political tactician; the master of a fractious cabinet who forged a “team of rivals” out of erstwhile challengers for the throne; the Lincoln Memorial Lincoln.
That Abraham Lincoln was all of these things, in some measure, there can be no doubt. But it is easy to forget how widely underrated Lincoln the president and Lincoln the man were at the time of his death and how successful Hay and Nicolay were in elevating his place in the nation’s collective historical memory.
These two also had some of the best access to Lincoln:
As Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries, Nicolay and Hay became closer to the president than anyone outside his immediate family. Still in their 20s, they lived and worked on the second floor of the White House, performing the functions of a modern-day chief of staff, press secretary, political director and presidential body man. Above all, they guarded the “last door which opens into the awful presence” of the commander in chief, in the words of Noah Brooks, a journalist and one of many Washington insiders who coveted their jobs, resented their influence and thought them a little too big for their britches (“a fault for which it seems to me either Nature or our tailors are to blame,” Hay once quipped).
...Hay and Nicolay were party to the president’s greatest official acts and most private moments. They were in the room when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and by his side at Gettysburg, when he first spoke to the nation of a “new birth of freedom.” When he could not sleep—which, as the war progressed, was often—Lincoln walked down the corridor to their quarters and passed the time reciting Shakespeare or mulling over the day’s political and military developments. When his son Willie died in 1862, the first person to whom Lincoln turned was John Nicolay.
The two felt it was important to share their vision of Lincoln with the American public:
Hay and Nicolay had begun planning a biography of Lincoln as early as midway through their White House tenure. The president’s death upended whatever initial scheme they had in mind. Over the next five years, the secretaries turned their attention to other endeavors. Nicolay took pleasure in travel and family life with his wife and daughter before settling in the nation’s capital, while Hay kept busy as a newspaper editor and poet, for the most part in New York City, and devoted time to his courtship of Clara Stone, a daughter of wealthy Cleveland industrialist Amasa Stone.
By 1872, however, Hay was “convinced that we ought to be at work on our ‘Lincoln.’ I don’t think the time for publication has come, but the time for preparation is slipping away.”
That same year, Charles Francis Adams—a scion of the famous Massachusetts family (and father of Henry Adams) who had served in the Lincoln administration as minister to Great Britain—delivered a memorial address on William Seward that portrayed him as the glue that kept the government together in perilous times. “I must affirm, without hesitation,” he avowed, “that in the history of our government, down to this hour, no experiment so rash has ever been made as that of elevating to the head of affairs a man with so little previous preparation for the task as Mr. Lincoln.” Only by good grace and luck did Lincoln possess the wisdom to appoint as his first minister Seward, the “master mind” of the government and savior of the Union. The speech enraged Lincoln’s stalwart defenders, first among them Gideon Welles, secretary of the Navy in Lincoln’s cabinet, who issued a stinging rebuke.
Then, in his popular account of the war years, The American Conflict, the ever-erratic newspaper editor Horace Greeley portrayed Lincoln as a bungling leader who squandered multiple opportunities to end the war early, either on the battlefield or through negotiation. Lincoln acolytes might have rolled their eyes, but he sold books, so his opinion mattered.
Shortly after Seward’s death, Nicolay wrote once more to Robert, urging him to allow for the “collection and arrangement of the materials which John and I will need in writing the history we propose. We must of necessity begin with your father’s papers.” Robert agreed to grant access in April 1874.
That summer, several dozen boxes made their way from Illinois to Washington, D.C., where Nicolay, who had been appointed marshal to the Supreme Court in 1872, deposited them in his office. There, in the marble confines of the Capitol building, they would be safe from fire, water damage or theft.
Hay and Nicolay were especially troubled by the historical amnesia that was quickly taking hold over the reunited states. In popular literature and journalism, the war was being recast as a brothers’ squabble over abstract political principles like federalism and states’ rights, rather than as a moral struggle between slavery and freedom. Magazines and newspapers commonly took to celebrating the military valor of both Confederate and Union soldiers, as though bravery, rather than morality, were the chief quality to be commemorated.
The authors pointedly emphasized the salient moral and political issues that had divided the nation before, and in many respects after, the war. The conflict had been caused by “an uprising of the national conscience against a secular wrong” that could never be blotted out by the romance of reunion.
By 1875, the secretaries were fully immersed in research and slowly coming to appreciate the mammoth task for which they had volunteered. The biography would consume them for the next 15 years. During that time, both men held other jobs: Nicolay remained at the Supreme Court until 1887, while Hay worked for his father-in-law and served briefly as assistant secretary of state under Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes. Their labors were frequently interrupted by their own illnesses or those of their wives and children. Editors begged them for an advance peek at the work. Publishers courted them. For the time being, they held their suitors at bay. “We [are] in no hurry to make arrangements,” Hay told one hopeful.
The final product was huge:
Reviews of the massive Nicolay-Hay work—in its final form, Abraham Lincoln: A History was ten volumes and 1.2 million words—were mixed. Some reviewers were baffled by its scope. Even a friendly newspaper remarked that “no one will suspect the writers of being lukewarm Republicans.”
William Dean Howells, the dean of American literature who, as a young man, had written Lincoln’s campaign biography in 1860, called it “not only...the most important work yet accomplished in American history” but also “one of the noblest achievements of literary art.” By far, the critic whose opinion held the greatest sway with the authors was Robert Lincoln, and he was “much pleased...with the results of your long work,” he told Hay. “It is what I hoped it would be.” “Many people speak to me & confirm my own opinion of it as a work in every way excellent—not only sustaining but elevating my father’s place in History,” he assured his friend of three decades. “I shall never cease to be glad that the places you & Nicolay held near him & in his confidence were filled by you & not by others.”
Hefty and expensive, Abraham Lincoln: A History sold only 7,000 copies, but for every person who bought the collection, 50 others read extensive excerpts in its serial run. More important than sales was the book’s intellectual reach. For at least half a century, the Nicolay-Hay volumes formed the basis of all major scholarship on Lincoln.