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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Nicolay and Hay gave a prominent place to the elephant in the room: slavery. Few white Americans were interested in discussing the question by 1885. Hay, in his discussion of sectional politics that formed the backdrop of Lincoln’s political rise, stated matter-of-factly that “it is now universally understood, if not conceded, that the Rebellion of 1861 was begun for the sole purpose of defending and preserving to the seceding States the institution of African slavery and making them the nucleus of a great slave empire.” Rejecting the increasingly widespread argument that the Civil War was about a great many things, but not slavery, Hay reduced the conflict to “that persistent struggle of the centuries between despotism and individual freedom; between arbitrary wrong, consecrated by tradition and law, and the unfolding recognition of private rights.”

Breaking his own rule against believing the memories of old men long after the fact, Hay gave credence to the claim of John Hanks, Lincoln’s cousin, who recalled a journey that he and Lincoln had taken. Hired to escort a barge of goods down the Mississippi River in 1831, Hanks claimed that it was there that Lincoln first saw “negroes chained, maltreated, whipped, and scourged. Lincoln saw it; his heart bled; said nothing much, was silent, looked bad. I can say, knowing it, that it was on this trip that he first formed his opinion of slavery.”

As an antebellum politician, Lincoln—though not an abolitionist or a radical—had boldly affirmed that black Americans were fellow men and women. After four years of war, his own thinking evolved even further. The secretaries followed his moral and intellectual lead. They also understood that his legacy would forever be linked with his emancipation agenda. In this regard, they were writing for posterity.

As young presidential aides, Nicolay and Hay often missed the significance of events that they’d witnessed and in which they’d participated. They were actors in “stirring times,” Nicolay observed in the first weeks of the war, though “I hardly realize that they are so, even as I write them.” In November 1863, the secretaries drank their way through a 24-hour trip to Gettysburg, in part because it was their job to work the swing-state reporters and politicians on hand for the dedication of the cemetery, but also because they were young men who enjoyed a good time. In hindsight, they appreciated the gravitas of the moment.
The pair acknowledged the growing consensus around the magnitude of the Gettysburg Address when they devoted a stand-alone chapter, 13 pages, to the speech. They reproduced the entire address, along with a photo facsimile of the original manuscript in Lincoln’s hand.


In securing Lincoln’s historical legacy, Hay believed it was imperative that the biography diminish the reputation of George McClellan, the former Union general, Democratic presidential candidate and thorn in Lincoln’s side during the war.

Hay portrayed McClellan as an inept general given to “delusions” and “hallucinations of overwhelming forces opposed to him,” a man who “rarely estimated the force immediately opposed to him at less than double its actual strength.” Hay disclosed for the first time McClellan’s discourteous refusal to meet with Lincoln, when the president called at his house in late 1861, and zeroed in mercilessly on the general’s botched effort at the Battle of Antietam, where, thanks to a Union private’s discovery of Lee’s battle plans, he “knew not only of the division of his enemy’s army in half, but he knew where his trains, his rear-guard, his cavalry, were to march and to halt, and where the detached commands were to join the main body.” McClellan failed to act on this intelligence, Hay disclosed, and “every minute which he thus let slip away was paid for in the blood of Union soldiers the next day.” McClellan’s “deplorable shortcomings” were a constant source of agony, as was his “mutinous insolence” in routinely denigrating the president behind his back.

Nicolay and Hay scrupulously avoided distortions. Yet their bias was evident not only in what they wrote but what they omitted. The secretaries were fully cognizant of Mary Todd Lincoln’s misappropriation of the official household expense account. They also witnessed the distress that her actions visited upon the president. The subject appears nowhere in their work.

As for the president’s liberal suspension of the writ of habeas corpus—protection against indefinite confinement without benefit of legal proceeding—they dismissed critics. “The greatest care was taken by the President to restrain the officers acting under his authority from any abuse of this tremendous power,” they wrote. In retrospect, even historians who believe that Lincoln had little choice but to jail certain vituperous Northern opponents of the war would disagree with the secretaries’ overly generous assessment.

The Lincoln whom Hay and Nicolay introduced to the reading public was a deft operator. He exerted control “daily and hourly” over “the vast machinery of command and coordination in Cabinet, Congress, army, navy, and the hosts of national politics.” When the military high command failed to deliver victory, the president schooled himself in the art of battle, and “it is safe to say that no general in the army studied his maps and scanned his telegrams with half the industry—and, it may be added, with half the intelligence—which Mr. Lincoln gave to his.” Unlike many of his generals, the president displayed a “larger comprehension of popular forces” and understood that “a free people...can stand reverses and disappointments; they are capable of making great exertions and great sacrifices. The one thing that they cannot endure is inaction on the part of their rulers.” He was, in the eyes of his secretaries, the most skilled executive ever to have lived in the White House.

Hay was certain that he and Nicolay had placed “the truth before the country.” “Year after year of study,” he wrote to Robert Lincoln, “has shown me more clearly than ever how infinitely greater your father was than anybody about him, greater than ever we imagined while he lived. There is nothing to explain or apologize for from beginning to end. He is the one unapproachably great figure of a great epoch.”

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.

Nicolay continued to labor in Lincoln’s shadow. He contributed articles on matters of Lincoln lore and legend. He condensed the ten volumes of his effort with Hay, creating an abridged history that achieved strong sales. That his life had become an extension of Lincoln’s did not seem to trouble Nicolay. He had not grown as rich as Hay (though he surely understood that Hay married, rather than earned, his money). He was by no means as famous. He never held high office or seemed even to aspire to it.

Hay, approaching 60, finally achieved the political heights that many of his friends had expected of him. In spring 1898, President William McKinley forced the increasingly senile John Sherman out of the State Department and later that year tapped Hay to replace him as secretary of state. Over the next six and a half years, until his death, Hay played an instrumental role in expanding America’s strategic position over two oceans and two hemispheres.

Days after William McKinley, struck down by an assailant’s bullet, expired on September 14, 1901, Hay rode by carriage from his home on Lafayette Square to Capitol Hill, where his oldest friend, John Nicolay, lay dying. Hay wore black crepe on his arm, a sign of mourning for the president. Helen greeted him in the hall and explained that her father did not have long to live. She asked that Hay not tell him of the president’s assassination, for fear that the news would agitate him. “I must take this off before I go up to him,” Hay said as he removed his armband. “I had to tell him that my father would not see it—that he was already more in the other world than in this,” Helen later wrote. “He mounted the stairs slowly. I stayed below. He came down more slowly still, his face stricken with grief. He never saw his old friend again.”

Shortly following Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1905, Hay took a leave of absence from the State Department and traveled to Europe with Clara, where he hoped that doctors might help cure him of mounting heart trouble. The sojourn seemed to have had a restorative effect. Yet by the time John and Clara boarded the RMS Baltic for the journey home, the old troubles seemed to afflict him once again. After conferring with the president in Washington, Hay left with Clara for the Fells, his New Hampshire country house, where he died in the early hours of July 1, 1905.



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