Taking for granted the canonization of Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator who set the standard for presidential and moral leadership is easy when you consider the massive Lincoln Memorial in Washington, a flood of books on the subject and Steven Spielberg’s popular movie.
But that view of Lincoln was not always embraced. In the decades after the Civil War, Lincoln was viewed with ambivalence if not hostility by the intellectual elites. Prominent historians denigrated him as a backwoods politician and a bungling leader who mishandled the war. The moral dimension of the war — Lincoln’s drive to end slavery — was often forgotten by white Americans.
In Lincoln’s Boys, historian Joshua Zeitz chronicles how Lincoln’s eventual ascendancy in our memory owes much to his two secretaries, who spent more time with the 16th president than anyone. John Hay and John Nicolay reset the historical narrative with a 10-volume biography that portrayed Lincoln as a deft leader and strategist, “the one unapproachably great figure of a great epoch.”
Zeitz makes important contributions to a vast field of Lincoln study. He sheds light on the two men who had their own long careers but devoted much of their lives to the Lincoln biography, and he analyzes how the nation’s views of slavery and the Civil War shifted over the decades, and how our perception of Lincoln changed.
By the late 19th century, many white Northerners soured on Reconstruction in the South and often turned against freed slaves. Southerners promoted a view of the war as a family feud between brothers, with slavery ignored.
“Writing at a time when the tide of popular racism was once again on the rise, Lincoln’s secretaries were swimming against the currents,” Zeitz concludes. Americans treated the war with “selective retrospection… a single theme reverberated clearly: the war was over, the cause was moot, and all should be honored.”
Nicolay and Hay were young men at the right time and place — close to Lincoln in Illinois when he won the presidency in 1860. As his secretaries, they lived in the White House and were with him when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, gave the Gettysburg Address, argued with his Cabinet, grieved over his dead son Willie and agonized over war casualties.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Hay went on to a prominent career as diplomat, editor, Republican Party stalwart and secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Nicolay became the marshal of the Supreme Court. They remained close friends and resolved to write the Lincoln biography, a task that took 15 years.
Zeitz uses the memoirs and letters of Hay and Nicolay to retell the story through the eyes of two men who admitted they were callow witnesses to great events. They matured into thoughtful chroniclers who did for Lincoln what modern insiders did for recent presidents (think of Theodore Sorenson on John Kennedy and Clark Clifford on Lyndon Johnson).
The Hay-Nicolay biography sold only 7,000 copies but was serialized in The Century, a popular magazine in the 1890s and widely read. It became the indispensable starting point for future works.
A common view among historians at the time was that Lincoln owed any success he had to strong leaders in his Cabinet. “Nicolay and Hay blasted the foundations of this narrative and in its place created a lasting image” of Lincoln as the sagacious leader, Zeitz concludes in this well-researched work.
But the real value of Lincoln’s Boys is to recast the battle for Lincoln’s image in the context of our nation’s troubled history in coming to terms with slavery and racism. Before the civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century, conventional history often ignored slavery and the impact of segregation on African Americans.
That view has changed in recent decades. Lincoln’s role in ending slavery is central to his story, and that’s how we think of him today. Hay and Nicolay understood, Zeitz concludes, that Lincoln’s legacy “would forever be linked with his emancipation agenda.”
“In this regard they were writing for posterity, not for the present day.”
Frank Davies is a writer who lives in Virginia.