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

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.”

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.


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.


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.


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.


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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