John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image
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". . . will appeal to all who wish to gaze into the heart of Lincoln. . ."
The iconic image of Abraham Lincoln Americans recognize today, immortalized in his temple-like memorial and on our five dollar bill, owes its birth to the genius of two young men who served beside him during our country’s darkest hours. In Lincoln’s Boys we observe the process of how John Hay and John Nicolay forever engraved into the public’s imagination the man we’ve come to know as the Great Emancipator.
Both Hay and Nicolay came from humble backgrounds. In their twenties they found their life’s calling as Springfield’s soon-to-be favorite son took the stage for his ascension into national politics. Nicolay, a poor German immigrant orphaned by fifteen, worked his way up to editor of an influential Republican newspaper. By the late 1850s, Nicolay as a stalwart supporter of the newly-formed party had caught Lincoln’s attention. Upon election to high office, Lincoln offered Nicolay the position of presidential secretary. Nicolay asked if he could have an assistant, his younger friend, the highly intelligent John Hay. Lincoln agreed. Hay fancied himself a poet but had drifted into an unrewarding position in his uncle’s law firm. With Nicolay and Hay at his side, Lincoln’s White House ran smoothly—his correspondance answered deftly while fractuous politicians and office seekers handled with grace. Both men traveled throughout the war representing the office of the president. Nicolay acted as presidential envoy to quell the Sioux uprising in Minnesota; Hay became a major in the Union Army with the task of setting up a pro-Union government in Florida. Although they felt they were witnessing history, with the short-sightedness of youth they didn’t realize how important their role to their beloved president’s legacy would soon become.
After the war, Hay and Nicolay served in the diplomatic corps in Europe, but they came to realize that Americans needed to learn more about Lincoln from those who knew him best. By the 1880s, Lincoln’s image had been tarnished by his former law partner and others. Worse yet, in their desire to reunify the country both Northern and Southern publications painted a romantic portrait of the war, glorifying military accomplishments on both sides while de-emphasizing the importance of abolishing slavery as the reason behind the conflict. Jim Crow laws began to appear. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s only surviving son, asked his friends Hay and Nicolay to write his father’s biography and gave them access to Lincoln’s papers. From these multitudes of documents, their interviews, and their own experiences, for over fifteen years the two former secretaries would write 1.2 million words in ten volumes, crafting a masterpiece still considered today the definitive account of Lincoln and his times.
Lincoln’s Boys is a must-read for all Civil War buffs, but it will appeal to all who wish to gaze into the heart of Lincoln, seeing him stand tall through the eyes of two very insightful men.
Reviewer: Cindy A. Matthews
Categorised in: Book Reviews
This post was written by Cynthianna Matthews