The Battle over President Lincoln’s Legacy

Who would determine how the world saw America’s greatest president, his old friend or his secretaries? A new book tells the story of the men who were by his side during the presidency—and how they started shaping his image.

02.08.14 10:45 AM ET

The boys of Lincoln’s Boys are John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s youthful private secretaries when he was president and in middle age authors of the most substantial nineteenth-century biography of Lincoln. Their biographer Joshua Zeitz, a former contributing editor at American Heritage, says in his prologue that “Nicolay and Hay believed that writing history required telling a good story.” Zeitz tells several. The longest story traces the friendship of a German immigrant and American prodigy who met in primary school and remained close until their deaths. Their service to Lincoln brought them together in their twenties, and Zeitz may solicit interest in them with his title, but Lincoln doesn’t dominate the story. Lincoln’s Boys really is a dual biography of intelligent youths becoming interesting men and respected old men.

The most provocative of Zeitz’s stories is announced in his subtitle—“the War for Lincoln’s Image.” Although not a professional historian, I am familiar with this long-running conflict because of my research on William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and author of a Lincoln biography published in 1889 that was and still is central to that war. Zeitz claims that Nicolay and Hay knew Lincoln better than anyone save his family, but the secretaries knew him only for a few years as candidate and president. For more than twenty years Herndon knew Lincoln as mentor, partner, and friend who occasionally shared a bed when they were riding the Illinois circuit. Zietz’s pages on Herndon follow very closely an extremely condescending 1948 biography of Herndon by David Donald. Zeitz does not cite Herndon’s biography of Lincoln in his bibliography, which may have been a clerical oversight. More importantly, Zeitz does not cite or use Douglas Wilson’s Honor’s Voice, a 1998 scholarly study of early Lincoln that considers much more carefully than Donald did the value of Herndon and his informants for biographers including Nicolay and Hay.

Long before Herndon published his biography, he was despised by Mary Todd Lincoln and her son Robert because of revelations in a 1866 lecture that they found embarrassing. Robert was a close friend of Hay, who promised that the former secretaries’ biography would be written in “a spirit of reverence.” if Robert let them use his father’s papers. In return for exclusive access, Nicolay and Hay gave Robert the right to edit their copy, which he did. Lincoln’s melancholy, his religious “infidelism,” and difficulties with Mary Todd, from their courtship through her crooked escapades in the White House, are consequently glossed over in the reverential secretaries’ biography. While Zeitz mentions these facts, his very positive evaluation of his subjects’ “authorized” biography could have been better informed had Zeitz been more thorough in his research.

Popular history of the kind Zeitz writes should be as knowledgeable and accurate—if not as detailed—as scholarly history, particularly if that popular history inserts itself into an ongoing argument about a figure of Lincoln’s importance. If Zeitz is unsatisfactory in this crucial component of his book, I worry that historians will find other aspects equally flawed and that Zeitz is doing for Nicolay and Hay what they did for Lincoln—presenting just the kind of scrubbed and idealized image that Herndon refused to supply. 

Even if Zeitz does overpraise Nicolay and Hay as biographers, the story of their lifelong friendship is compelling. Hay was born in Indiana in 1838, the son of a doctor. After preparatory school in Illinois, Hay went to Brown University, where he amused men and charmed women. Hay wanted to be a poet but after graduation was clerking in his uncle’s law office in Springfield, Illinois, where, in 1859, he reconnected with his former schoolmate Nicolay. Six years older than Hay, Nicolay was, like Lincoln, a self-educated man who wrote for newspapers, was at 22 the editor of an anti-slavery paper, and later was executive director of Lincoln’s Republican Party in Illinois. During the 1860 presidential campaign, Nicolay became Lincoln’s private secretary and chief aide. Overwhelmed with correspondence, Nicolay asked that Hay be brought on to help. Despite his youth and apparent lack of interest in politics, Hay was hired, and they both went to the White House when Lincoln won.

Occupying the position of what would now be Chief of Staff, Nicolay and his assistant were a complementary team. To the hordes who wanted time with Lincoln, the gruff and efficient Nicolay was the “grim enforcer.” Hay was the foppish “smiling emissary” whose conversational skills could make petitioners forget they came to see the president. The two occasionally had policy differences—with each other and even with the president they fondly called “the Tycoon”—but they were tireless in their devotion to an executive who worked into the night and never took a vacation. The secretaries observed the “team of rivals” featured in Spielberg’s Lincoln, ran afoul of the “hellcat” Mary Todd Lincoln, and were present at, though not always fully conscious of, historic occasions. At Gettysburg, Nicolay and Hay—“boys” still—had been drinking the night before the Address and showed little appreciation of the speech at the time.

The White House years, when the secretaries were physically closest, may be of prime interest to most readers, but the less familiar story of their later lives reveals more about their admirable characters and remarkable friendship. After the assassination, Lincoln’s Boys becomes a travel story and then love stories. Nicolay and Hay take up diplomatic positions in Paris, with Hay moving on to posts in Vienna and Madrid. They visit each other and travel together to other cities in Europe. Returning to the United States after a few years, Nicolay is appointed marshal of the Supreme Court. Hay becomes an editor at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Nicolay marries a woman who waited for him in Illinois through the years when he and Hay shared a bedroom in the White House. In 1874 Hay marries a Chicago heiress worth millions of dollars. The men are devoted to their wives and children, and soon the families are traveling together despite Nicolay’s preference for rough camping and Hay’s taste for luxury.

Though perhaps not intended by the author, Lincoln’s Boys is also a story about the love of language. The secretaries were writers before they invisibly composed hundreds of Lincoln’s letters. Afterwards, Hay wrote well-published poetry and fiction. Nicolay wrote travel essays and histories. Neither appeared to be writing for money. Their journal entries, letters, and even their brief notes to each other have a stylishness and irony that make them a pleasure to read 150 years later. Their ten-volume biography on Lincoln that was begun in 1874 and first started appearing in 1886 was sometimes faulted for being too literary.  Contemporaries of Henry James, Nicolay and Hay were closer in style to the mandarin James than to other more journalistic biographers. Because Zeitz’s own prose is workmanlike, the contrast with his subjects’ writing points up their ability to express themselves gracefully and wittily about even minor matters.

Hay lived to be 66, Nicolay to 69, so they came of age before the Civil War and lived into the twentieth century. Zeitz efficiently shows how their lives parallel and depart from the larger story of a rapidly changing America in those decades. Lincoln’s Boys has compact sections on Americans’ attitudes toward slavery before the War, Reconstruction, labor strife, and what Zeitz calls the “Reunion” period in the 1880’s when many Northeners wanted to forgive—too soon, for Nicolay and Hay—the moral outrages of Southern slavery. Their treatment of Lincoln before and during the War was intended, in part, to resist premature Reunion. Although Nicolay seemed to be the brains of the pair, after the biography was published it was the rich and socially adept Hay who filled several important government posts, including ambassador to Great Britain, where he charmed an aged Queen Victoria, and Secretary of State under McKinley and Roosevelt. Perhaps because of his wealth, Hay became more conservative in his politics than Nicolay, but they were friends to the end. As Zeitz tells their stories, no petty divisions or scandal marred their lives. I hope it’s not nostalgia for a more noble time that makes me believe his wealth of biographical details, if not his judgment of the secretaries’ biography.