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(Illustration by Joe Ciardiello )

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

Hay cultivated a softer image. He was, in the words of his contemporaries, a “comely young man with peach-blossom face,” “very witty boyish in his manner, yet deep enough—bubbling over with some brilliant speech.” An instant fixture in Washington social circles, fast friend of Robert Todd Lincoln’s and favorite among Republican congressmen who haunted the White House halls, he projected a youthful dash that balanced out Nicolay’s more grim bearing.

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.

Though the White House was under military guard—later, as the war progressed, plainclothes detectives mingled among household staff for added security—the public, including hordes of patronage seekers, was at liberty to enter the mansion during regular business hours. Visiting hours “began at ten o’clock in the morning,” Hay explained, “but in reality the anterooms and halls were full before that hour—people anxious to get the first axe ground.”

After rising at dawn and eating a sparse breakfast of one egg, toast and black coffee, the president read the morning dispatches from his generals, reviewed paperwork with his secretaries and conferred with members of his cabinet. Breaking at noon for a solitary lunch—“a biscuit, a glass of milk in the winter, some fruit or grapes in the summer”—he returned to his office and received visitors until 5 or 6 in the evening. Most days, Lincoln worked until 11 p.m.; during critical battles, he stayed up until the early daylight hours, reviewing telegraphic dispatches from the War Department. Unlike modern presidents, Lincoln never took a vacation. He worked seven days each week, 52 weeks of the year, and generally left Washington only to visit the field or, on one occasion, to dedicate a battleground cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

For the secretaries, too, the work was punishing. When their boss was in the office, often 14 hours each day, they remained on call. “The boys” soon came to know him intimately. He often took carriage rides with them, and when the first lady was out of town or indisposed, they accompanied him to the theater. In good humor, the secretaries referred to Lincoln privately as “the Tycoon” and “the Ancient,” though they always addressed him directly as “Mr. President.” Charles G. Halpine, an Irish-born writer who came to know Hay during the war, later judged that “Lincoln loved him as a son.”

Nicolay’s rapport with Lincoln was more formal but they were still close. Nicolay decided which visitors would enjoy a presidential audience and which dispatches would fall under Lincoln’s gaze. In many cases, Nicolay issued orders and responses without consulting the president, whose policies and priorities he came instinctively to understand and anticipate. Even his detractors did not second-guess his standing.

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In the weeks following Lincoln’s burial in Springfield, Nicolay and Hay returned to Washington, where they spent several weeks arranging the presidential papers for shipment to Illinois. The archives would be overseen by Lincoln’s son, Robert, now devoted to a growing law practice in Chicago. Lincoln’s official correspondence comprised more than 18,000 documents, sprawled across roughly 42,000 individual pieces of paper. Most items were letters and telegrams written to the president, but dispersed among dozens of boxes were copies of thousands of Lincoln’s outgoing letters and telegrams, memoranda, Congressional reports and speeches.

During the next half-dozen years, the Lincoln papers remained sealed behind closed doors. When William Herndon, Lincoln’s Springfield law partner, who was planning his own Lincoln biography, asked Robert for access, Robert insisted that he had “not any letters which could be of any interest whatever to you or anyone.”

The first substantive attempt at memorializing Lincoln fell to George Bancroft, the unofficial dean of the American historical enterprise, whom Congress invited to deliver a tribute in early 1866. A Democrat who had served in James Polk’s cabinet, Bancroft was an unusual choice to eulogize the first Republican president. The two men were not well acquainted. Bancroft cast a critical eye on Lincoln’s abilities. Speaking from the well of the House for more than two and a half hours, the gray-haired relic offered little background beyond a stock biographical sketch of the 16th president, though he managed to issue a cool, outwardly polite rebuke of Lincoln’s administrative skills and intellectual capacity for high office. John Hay later fumed that “Bancroft’s address was a disgraceful exhibition of ignorance and prejudice.” The former secretary was particularly offended that Bancroft seemed fundamentally to underestimate Lincoln’s native genius. It was an error Hay had seen committed time and again during the war, by better-educated but lesser men who remained stubbornly ignorant of the president’s inner reserve of intelligence and strength.

William Herndon likely shared Hay’s contempt for George Bancroft, though for reasons of his own. Lincoln’s friend and law partner of 16 years, Herndon was an abolitionist and temperance man, though also an alcoholic who relapsed repeatedly. Yet for all his faults, Herndon understood Lincoln intimately and frowned upon the popular impulse to apoth-
eosize the man whom he had known in the flesh and blood.

No biographer was more guilty of this historical mischief than Josiah Holland, the deeply pious editor of the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts, who paid Herndon a visit in May 1865. In the 1866 Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, the author introduced the president as a Bible-quoting evangelical whose hatred of slavery flowed from an eschatological belief that “the day of wrath was at hand.” The book reinvented Lincoln from whole cloth, but the reading public eagerly bought up 100,000 copies, making it an overnight best seller.

Ultimately, Herndon—although he delivered a series of lectures on Lincoln’s life—was unable to complete a biography, particularly once he became sidetracked by stories he collected regarding Lincoln’s doomed courtship of Ann Rutledge. The New Salem, Illinois, innkeeper’s daughter contracted typhoid and died at age 22 in 1835; rumor had it that she and Lincoln had been engaged. Herndon’s subtext was impossible to mistake: Lincoln had loved only one woman (Ann Rutledge) and his grief for her was so profound that he never loved another woman, including his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Mary, of course, was enraged. “This is the return for all my husband’s kindness to this miserable man!” she fumed. Robert was equally incensed, but also concerned. “Mr. Wm. H. Herndon is making an ass of himself,” he told David Davis, the executor of his father’s estate, and pleaded with him to intercede. Because Herndon “speaks with a certain amount of authority from having known my father for so long,” his stories, Robert believed, could do great injury to the family’s reputation. (Years later, as late as 1917, Robert still bristled at any suggestion that his father had been a simple, rough-hewn relic of the frontier, a characterization advanced aggressively by Herndon.) Fortunately for the Lincoln family, Herndon lacked the necessary discipline to sit down and write a proper book.

Unfortunately for the family, by 1867, Herndon, in increasingly dire financial straits, sold copies of his extensive collection of Lincoln materials—interview transcripts, court records, testimonial letters and newspaper clippings—to Ward Hill Lamon, a bluff, gregarious lawyer whom Lincoln had befriended on the circuit in the 1850s. Lamon went to Washington with Lincoln, served as U.S. marshal for the city during the war and later established a law practice in Washington, D.C. with Jeremiah Black, a prominent Democrat who had served in President Buchanan’s cabinet.

Realizing that he lacked a way with words, Lamon joined forces with his partner’s son, Chauncey Black, who undertook the task of ghostwriting Lamon’s history of Lincoln. The Black family held the Republican Party and its martyr in low esteem. “He certainly does not compare well with the refined and highly cultivated gentlemen (fifteen in number) who preceded him in the executive chair,” the elder Black scoffed. “He also lacked that lofty scorn of fraud and knavery which is inseparable from true greatness. He was not bad himself but he tolerated the evil committed by others when it did not suit him to resist it.”

On the eve of the book’s publication in 1872, Davis, who had learned of its contents, all but locked Lamon in a room and compelled him to excise an entire chapter representing Lincoln as a bumbling, inept president who inadvertently pushed the nation to war. Black was incensed by the eleventh-hour omission, but what remained in print proved sufficiently explosive. Incorporating Herndon’s material, Black and Lamon, in The Life of Abraham Lincoln, were the first to publish alleged details of Lincoln’s troubled marriage to Mary Todd, the depth of the future president’s putative atheism and a charge—long thereafter disputed, and much later discredited—of Lincoln’s illegitimate patrimony. Hay beseeched a mutual friend, “Can’t you stop him? ... For the grave of the dead and the crime of the living prevent it if possible. Its effect will be most disastrous.” Robert, too, was furious. “It is absolutely horrible to think of such men as Herndon and Lamon being considered in the light that they claim.”

Herndon, for his part, countered that he was helping the world to appreciate the complex of hurdles that Lincoln overcame, including bastardy, poverty and obscurity. Unsurprisingly, the Lincoln family took exception to Herndon’s declarations of friendship. Robert also came gradually to understand that to tell the story his way, he would need help.

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