Special Report

The History of How We Came to Revere Abraham Lincoln

The slain president’s two personal secretaries battled mudslingers for a quarter-century to shape his image

(Illustration by Joe Ciardiello)
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John Hay, one of Abraham Lincoln’s two private secretaries, spent the evening of April 14, 1865, Good Friday, at the White House, drinking whiskey and talking with the president’s 21-year-old son, Robert, an officer attached to General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff. Shortly before 11 p.m., Tad Lincoln burst through the front door of the mansion, crying “They’ve killed Papa dead!” Hay and Robert rushed by carriage to Tenth Street, where the mortally wounded president had been transferred to the Petersen House, a boardinghouse across from Ford’s Theatre. Upon their arrival, a doctor informed them that the president would not survive his wounds.

With John Hay at his side, Robert Todd Lincoln walked into the room where his father lay stretched out on a narrow bed. Unconscious from the moment of his shooting, the president “breathed with slow and regular respiration throughout the night,” Hay later recalled. Family friends and government officials filed in and out of the chamber. “As the dawn came and the lamplight grew pale,” Hay recalled, the president’s “pulse began to fail.” Hay and Robert were at the president’s side when he passed.

The next day, 33-year-old John Nicolay, who served as the president’s other private secretary, was aboard a Navy warship, returning from a brief excursion to Cuba, where he had traveled to take the ocean air. As his party entered Chesapeake Bay, Nicolay reported, they “took a pilot on board [and] heard from him the first news of the terrible loss the country had suffered....It was so unexpected, so sudden and so horrible even to think of, much less to realize that we couldn’t believe it, and therefore remained in hope that it would prove one of the thousand groundless exaggerations which the war has brought forth during the past four years. Alas, when we reached Point Lookout at daylight this morning, the mournful reports of the minute guns that were being fired, and the flags at half-mast left us no ground for further hope.”

It is little wonder that historians consult Hay’s and Nicolay’s writing frequently—their letters and journals provide eyewitness accounts of their White House years. But their major life’s work after the Civil War is a largely forgotten story.

After an 1863 portrait session (Nicolay, left), Hay wrote in his diary: “Nico & I immortalised ourselves by having ourselves done in a group with the Prest.” (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
From the instant of Lincoln’s death, the debate over his role in history ignited. John Hay, who was present at Peter­sen House (pictured leaning against table, right) understood the obligation to Lincoln’s legacy as early as 1863. “I believe,” Hay wrote, “he will fill a bigger place in history than even he dreams himself.” (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Robert Lincoln also witnessed Garfield’s slaying and was nearby at McKinley’s assassination. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
The slain president’s critics were legion, including historian George Bancroft. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Senator James Grimes (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Newspaper editor Horace Greeley (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Statesman Charles Francis Adams (Adams National Historic Park / NPS)
William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
The Lincoln Memorial, constructed after the secretaries’ deaths, testifies to their image of a president who was “almost a giant in physical stature and strength.” (National Archives)

“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.

While Lincoln prided himself on his deep connection to “the people,” he never succeeded in translating his immense popularity with the Northern public into similar regard among the nation’s political and intellectual elites. The profound emotional bond that he shared with Union soldiers and their families, and his stunning electoral success in two presidential elections, never fully inspired an equivalent level of esteem by the influential men who governed the country and guarded its official history. To many of these men, he remained in death what he was in life: the rail-splitter and country lawyer—good, decent and ill-fitted to the immense responsibilities that befell him.

Leading into the 1864 election cycle, many prominent in Lincoln’s own party agreed with Iowa senator James Grimes that the administration “has been a disgrace from the very beginning to every one who had any thing to do with bringing it into power.” Charles Sumner, a radical antislavery leader, fumed that the nation needed “a president with brains; one who can make a plan and carry it out.”

From across the political spectrum, influential writers and politicians blamed Lincoln for four years of military stalemate and setbacks and for a series of political blunders that cost his party dearly in the 1862 midterm elections. John Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, spoke for many Republicans when he explained his support of Lincoln’s re-election. The president, he said, was “essentially lacking in the quality of leadership,” but now that he had been renominated, “correction is impossible...Massachusetts will vote for the Union Cause at all events and will support Mr. Lincoln so long as he remains the candidate.”

Years later, Hay remarked that had Lincoln “died in the days of doubt and gloom which preceded his reelection,” rather than in the final weeks of the war, as the Union moved to secure its great victory, he would almost certainly have been remembered differently, despite his great acts and deeds.


John Hay and John George Nicolay were prairie boys who met in 1851 as gifted, inquiring students in a rural Illinois school. Hay, a physician’s son and one of six children born into a close-knit family, and Nicolay, orphaned at 14 after his parents emigrated from Bavaria in 1838, forged a close friendship that endured over a half century. Fortune placed them in the right place (Springfield, Illinois) at the right time (1860) and offered them a front-row seat to one of the most tumultuous political and military upheavals in American history.

By 1856, Nicolay, the editor of an Illinois antislavery newspaper, had become active in Republican party politics. Appointed an aide to the Illinois secretary of state that year, he was a well-known figure in the statehouse. Hay returned to Illinois in 1859 after graduation from Brown University and was studying law, having joined his uncle Milton Hay’s Springfield practice, housed in the same building as Lincoln’s law offices.

Lincoln took on Nicolay as his secretary in June 1860, in the midst of the presidential campaign. During the heady post-election interlude in Springfield, Nicolay, installed in the governor’s office, controlled access to Lincoln and labored alone, answering between 50 and 100 letters a day.

When the mail and visitors became unmanageable, Hay began assisting his friend on an informal basis. By the end of December, Lincoln offered Nicolay the post of presidential secretary, at a princely sum of $2,500 per year—almost three times what he earned as campaign secretary. Not long after, Nicolay suggested that Hay be appointed assistant secretary. “We can’t take all Illinois down with us to Washington,” Lincoln replied. When Milton offered to pay his nephew’s salary for six months, the president-elect relented. “Well, let Hay come,” he agreed.

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).

In demeanor and temperament, they could not have been more different. Short-tempered and dyspeptic, Nicolay cut a brooding figure to those seeking the president’s time or favor. William Stoddard, formerly an Illinois journalist and then an assistant secretary under their supervision, later remarked that Nicolay was “decidedly German in his manner of telling men what he thought of them...People who do not like him—because they cannot use him, perhaps—say he is sour and crusty, and it is a grand good thing, then, that he is.”


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