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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On July 25, 1947, some 30 scholars and scions of the Civil War era gathered in the Whittall Pavilion of the Library of Congress for a gala dinner. Poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg was there—so were historians James G. Randall and Paul Angle, the leading expert on Lincoln’s Springfield years. Ulysses S. Grant III was pleased to attend; Helen Nicolay, now 81, was compelled by poor health to send her regrets. “Not since that morning in the Petersen House have so many men who loved Lincoln been gathered in one room,” remarked one of the attendees.

Shortly before midnight, the party took leave of the banquet and walked across the street to the library annex. There they waited for the clock to strike 12, signaling the 21st anniversary of Robert Todd Lincoln’s death—the date that the Lincoln family had designated to make the president’s papers available. Among the crowd of 200 onlookers, newspaper cameramen lit the room with their flashbulbs, while CBS Radio News interviewed several dignitaries.

At the appointed hour, the library staff unlocked the vaulted doors that had guarded the Lincoln collection, and the scholars rushed the card catalog. Elated, Randall felt as though he were “living with Lincoln, handling the very papers he handled, sharing his deep concern over events and issues, noting his patience when complaints poured in, hearing a Lincolnian laugh.” Many of the Lincoln papers were written in Nicolay’s or Hay’s hand and signed by the president. Most had passed through their fingers at least twice—during the war, when they were young men, and decades later, when they were old.

Soon after release of the manuscript collection, Roy P. Basler, the 41-year-old secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association, entered into an agreement with the Library of Congress to edit The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Basler was among a handful of individuals, then and since, who could claim to have read almost every extant scrap Lincoln ever wrote, from the mundane to the truly profound (with the exception of the late president’s legal papers). In 1974, speaking as “one of the few people yet alive who once read Nicolay and Hay complete,” he judged their work “indispensable” and predicted that it “will not be superseded.” Theirs was “not merely a biography of a public man but a history of the nation in his time.” The secretaries, he concluded, made “use of the stuff of history” in a way that few of their successors could claim.

Buy the book: Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image. Excerpt copyright © 2014, The Viking Press.

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