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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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.


Though Nicolay and Hay made little effort to mask their bias, they did set out to write a history grounded in evidence. In the early days of the project, Nicolay spent several months interviewing dozens of individuals who had known Lincoln in Illinois and Washington. The transcripts of these discussions informed their work, but they came to cast a skeptical eye on memories recorded years or decades after the fact. If a fact or an anecdote could not be confirmed by the written record, they usually discounted it entirely. Luckily, what they could not find in Lincoln’s vast manuscript collection they often located in their personal archives.

On rare occasions they relied on personal recollection of events to bring the biography to life—for instance, Nicolay’s vivid description of the moment that Lincoln was nominated at Chicago. They scoured newspapers for speech transcripts. They collected vast quantities of government documents, both Union and Confederate, related to the war. They swapped materials with the War Department, which retained copies of Lincoln’s in-going and out-going telegrams. They asked the children of long-departed Civil War notables to look through their attics for important documents, and they purchased materials from manuscript and book dealers. “I am getting together quite a little lot of books,” Nicolay reported as early as 1876.

The oversize first-floor study in Nicolay’s Capitol Hill row house came to accommodate one of the largest private collections of Civil War documentation and secondary scholarship in the country. Later, when Hay lived in Washington, between 1879 and 1881 as assistant secretary of state, and again from 1885 onward, he and Nicolay would walk between each other’s homes to swap materials and chapter drafts.

“The two would never divulge how the actual writing was divided between them,” Nicolay’s daughter, Helen, later explained. “They seemed to take a mischievous delight in keeping it a secret, saying they were co-authors, and that was all the public need know.” In some cases they alternated chapters. In other cases, each might assume responsibility for an entire volume. Hay and Nicolay had been so long acquainted that they were able to develop a common prose style with little effort.

By 1885, Hay and Nicolay had written some 500,000 words and were scarcely halfway through the Civil War. Hay grew increasingly concerned by the scope of the undertaking. What was needed was an incentive to bring the project to a close. Roswell Smith and Richard Gilder, publisher and editor, respectively, of the Century magazine, provided that motivation. “We want your life of Lincoln,” Smith told Hay. “We must have it. If you say so, I shall give you all the profit. We will take it, and work it for nothing ...It is probably the most important literary venture of the time.”

Soon they had a contract. Century offered unprecedented terms: $50,000 for serial rights, as well as royalties on sales of the full ten-volume set, to be issued following the magazine run.

The long-awaited serialization began in late 1886. Almost from the start, the work proved controversial. By virtue of their exhaustive treatment of Lincoln’s political career, Nicolay and Hay seared into the national awareness episodes largely unknown to the public, and themes and arguments that would influence Lincoln scholars and Civil War historians for generations.

Among its many famous contributions to the nation’s shared historical consciousness were revelations that William Seward drafted the closing lines of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, which the president-elect then fashioned into a work of literary genius. Nicolay and Hay were the first to report George McClellan’s vainglorious assurance that he could “do it all” when Lincoln gave him command of the Union Army. They were the first to write of Lincoln’s great distress early in the war, when Washington, D.C. was cut off from the North and the president, keeping anxious vigil for fresh troops, wondered, “Why don’t they come!” The biographers offered unprecedented insight into Lincoln’s decision-making on emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers and an insider’s view of his interaction with the Union’s high command.

Above all, Nicolay and Hay created a master narrative that continues to command serious scrutiny more than a century after its introduction. Populating his cabinet with former opponents for the Republican presidential nomination, Lincoln demonstrated his discernment and magnanimity in choosing men whom he “did not know...He recognized them as governors, senators, and statesmen, while they yet looked upon him as a simple frontier lawyer at most, and a rival to whom chance had transferred the honor they felt to be due to themselves.” Presaging the popular argument that Lincoln forged a “team of rivals,” Nicolay and Hay insisted that the strong personalities and talents who constituted his inner circle did not always appreciate “the stronger will and...more delicate tact [that] inspired and guided them all.”

Hay’s love for Lincoln shines through in his imagining of the future president’s solitary childhood. Describing Lincoln’s boyhood habit of reading and rereading Aesop’s Fables, Robinson Crusoe, the Bible and Parson Weems’ biography of George Washington, he drew a moving portrait of a young boy sitting “by the fire at night,” covering his “wooden shovel with essays and arithmetical exercises, which he would shave off and begin again. It is touching to think of this great-spirited child, battling year after year against his evil star, wasting ingenuity upon devices and makeshifts, his high intelligence starving for want of the simple appliances of education that are now afforded gratis to the poorest and most indifferent.” Hay presented the future president as a hero in the wilderness, doing solitary battle against the privations of his upbringing.


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