Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image.
Several historians have explored Abraham Lincoln's relationship with his presidential secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, but the author of this book offers a fresh perspective on Lincoln's "boys" by exploring "their life's work after the Civil War" to "create a definitive and enduring historical image of the slain leader" (4). The Lincoln that most Americans know today, Joshua Zeitz argues, was the direct result of his secretaries' ten-volume authorized biography of the president.
The first three parts of Lincoln's Boys examine Hay and Nicolay's journey from the bottomlands of the Mississippi River to the halls of the White House. Zeitz maintains that their close attachment to Lincoln, their association with several Republican politicians after the Civil War, and their success as diplomats and writers provided them with a unique opportunity to relate Lincoln's life to the public.
The author devotes the remainder of the book to evaluating Hay and Nicolay's efforts in crafting Lincoln's legacy in Abraham Lincoln: A History . Using their own collected materials and having been granted access to the president's papers by Robert Todd Lincoln, they sought to counter the unflattering stories about Lincoln promulgated by his former Springfield, Illinois, law partner William Herndon as well as the salacious, ghostwritten biography of Lincoln written by his friend Ward Hill Lamon. First partially serialized and later published by The Century, Hay and Nicolay's biography provided an opportunity to revise history and secure "Lincoln's legacy" by identifying slavery as the true cause of the war, venerating the Gettysburg Address, and entrenching it as one of America's quintessential documents in order to "diminish the reputation of George McClellan" and recast Lincoln's political rival, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, as an inept politician (296). But as Zeitz persuasively demonstrates, Abraham Lincoln also allowed them to counter the Southern interpretation of the war that began to dominate historical memory in the 1880s. In this way, the biography ultimately became the "unofficial Northern, Republican Party interpretation of the Civil War" (264). Hay and Nicolay followed their first act with the publication of Lincoln's complete works in 1894, allowing, as Zeitz correctly argues, their interpretation of the war and that of Lincoln to dominate the scholarly literature until Lincoln's papers were opened to the public in 1947 at the Library of Congress. The lasting power of Abraham Lincoln was also felt in other ways, Zeitz claims. Although Americans collected personal objects related to the president immediately after his death, Zeitz maintains that their study of the sixteenth president inspired the rise of Lincolniana and America's fascination with Lincoln.
If any criticism can be lodged, it is that Nicolay's voice is noticeably silent throughout the book. Undoubtedly, this is related to the simple fact that Hay occupied a more prominent role in literary and public circles after the Civil War and subsequently created a voluminous written record. Still, it is refreshing to see Zeitz tackle Nicolay's oft-neglected postwar career. There is much to admire about Lincoln's Boys--it is grounded in superb research, it is a highly entertaining narrative, and the lack of academic jargon will attract the historical enthusiast and scholar alike, yet again making Lincoln's life accessible to the American public.
Matthew C. Sherman
Institute for Political History
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Sherman, Matthew C.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
|Previous Article:||How Sex Became a Civil Liberty.|
|Next Article:||Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China.|