As the Civil War receded into the past, as the South began to repair itself, as the tensions that produced the great 19th-century conflagration became more history than vivid memory, two men set out to write history themselves — and to right what they saw as a great historical wrong.
They were John Hay and John Nicolay, Lincoln’s presidential secretaries, and it is largely to them that Lincoln owes much of the great reverence and respect now accorded the 16th president.
“Americans today understand Abraham Lincoln much as Nicolay and Hay hoped that they would,’’ historian Joshua Zeitz writes in “ Lincoln’s Boys,’’ his inventive and readable biography of two men and their magnificent obsession. “Theirs was a deliberate project of historical creation.’’
American presidents often have been outfitted with keepers of the flame; the men who worked for Franklin Roosevelt, including Lyndon Johnson himself, were a good example. So, too, were the men around John Kennedy, especially Theodore Sorensen and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who wrote history shortly after it was made by another slain president.
While this book is about the two secretaries it is preeminently about the man they served, and though it cannot substitute for one of the many scholarly and popular biographies of Lincoln, the reader comes away with a portrait of a president that Hay and Nicolay themselves would endorse: a man of probity and faith, but one rocked by tragedy, unsettled by war, uncertain of how to reconcile his vision of God and the world he sees beyond the White House doors.
Hay and Nicolay were remarkable figures themselves, with Hay serving as secretary of state for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt; remembered as one of the principals in another landmark book, Patricia O’Toole’s enthralling 1990 “Five of Hearts,’’ about the circle around Henry Adams; and the subject of a well-regarded 2013 biography by John Taliaferro, “All the Great Prizes.’’
Less well known, Nicolay was a journalist, moving easily among the Springfield, Ill., political crowd, a crack organizer and researcher, first drifting into Lincoln’s orbit, eventually controlling access into it as a White House force much like John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman in the Nixon White House.
There were several organizing principles in the Lincoln administration, but Hay and Nicolay were the principal organizers. “It was a four-years struggle on Nicolay’s part and mine,’’ Hay would say, “to get [Lincoln] to adopt some systematic rules.’’
The two accompanied the president everywhere, worked the hours he did, shared his agonies. They lived down the hall from the first family. As guardians of presidential access they were powerful figures in a city where powerful figures didn’t know them and at first didn’t trust them.
They were the administration’s administrators but not its strategists nor policymakers. Nicolay was known as “the bull-dog in the anteroom.’’ Hay was, as the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson put it, “a nice young fellow, who unfortunately looks about 17.’’
In these pages Zeitz gives us telling glimpses into the Lincoln household and White House, especially the fraught relationship between the secretaries and Mary Todd Lincoln, who resented their presence, prerogatives, and power. The two called Mrs. Lincoln ‘’Hellcat’’ and “Her Satanic Majesty.’’ She called for their ouster.
Just before his second inaugural, Lincoln appointed both to diplomatic posts in Paris. It wasn’t until two months after the assassination that they departed.
For many years after the president’s death one of the main Lincoln narratives was framed by William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, who portrayed him as the illegitimate son of a cuckold, an atheist or deist, hopelessly in love with a dead former girlfriend — stories aggregated in a scurrilous biography published in 1872, the same year Charles Francis Adams, in a memorial tribute to William Seward, described Lincoln’s secretary of state as the “master mind’’ of the administration.
By 1875 the two former secretaries were at work on their own biography of their hero and mentor — a reconstruction of the Lincoln years that really was a reclamation of the Lincoln years. “Theirs would be a corrective exercise,’’ Zeitz writes, “though they scarcely appreciated the immensity of the task to which they were committing themselves.’’ It would consume 15 years of their lives.
In repeated consultations with Lincoln’s son Robert, who would retain final editorial discretion, and with no formal historical training of their own, the two created a narrative — one that endures and defies revisionism.
Spanning 10 volumes and comprising 1.2 million words, it was, as Zeitz puts it, “the unofficial Northern, Republican Party interpretation of the Civil War.’’
Their Lincoln “combined in his intellectual nature a masculine courage and power of logic with an ideal sensitiveness of conscience and a sentimental tenderness as delicate as a woman’s.’’ They argued Lincoln’s anti-slavery views “came with the first awakening of his mind and conscience’’ and was “roused into active life’’ by the chilling sight of black men in chains on the New Orleans wharf.
Their biography attracted critics, to be sure. Charles Eliot, Harvard’s president, saluted the copious biographical and presidential materials the two men assembled but argued, “these gentlemen did not write history.’’
Perhaps. But few books that sold only 7,000 copies have had such a significant impact on the nation, its culture, and its image of itself. Long before the construction of the Lincoln Memorial, Hay and Nicolay placed Lincoln in stone.David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.