At the time of his death, Abraham Lincoln was immensely popular with the Northern public. The country’s political elite, however, regarded him as a good country lawyer ill-suited to deal with the heavy responsibilities of a wartime presidency. Influential writers and politicians of all stripes blamed him for a series of political blunders.
Early in their tenure as President Lincoln’s private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay began to plan for a joint biography of their boss. Lincoln’s assassination and Nicolay and Hay’s service in diplomatic positions for the next five years put the idea on hold, but it was not forgotten. When the two men did complete their work, in 10 volumes, the Lincoln they wrote about is the one we know today. That is to say, he was the Great Emancipator, the brilliant political tactician, the military genius, the greatest orator in American history.
Joshua Zeitz tells the story of their deliberate work of historical creation, grounded in evidence and fact, in his superb Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image. “The boys,” as Lincoln called them (both were in their 20s at the time) knew him as president more intimately than anyone outside his family. They lived in the White House and worked seven days a week.
Zeitz emphasizes that Hay and Nicolay were quite different personalities. Nicolay had been deeply involved in politics and was a Lincoln loyalist well before 1860. Hay, who had many other interests, drifted into politics and developed a growing admiration for the president during the White House years.
Nicolay and Hay spent 15 years researching and writing their multi-volume biography. One of the highlights of Lincoln’s Boys is to show how their views on slavery evolved over time. Their book emphasizes that the Civil War was rooted in the moral offense of slavery, a view they did not hold in 1861, or even as late as 1865.
This is a fascinating and extremely well-written account of the central role played by Lincoln’s private secretaries in determining how the 16th president would be regarded by future generations.