Review of Joshua Zeitz's "Lincoln's Boys"


Luther Spoehr is an HNN book reviewer and a senior lecturer at Brown University

Lincoln’s Boys:  John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image

By Joshua Zeitz

Viking, 2014

The bust of John Hay that greets visitors to Brown University’s John Hay Library is eminently Victorian:  bearded, stolid, formidable, an appropriate visage for a man best known as Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, author of the Open Door Notes, engineer of treaties that guaranteed American dominance in the Panama Canal Zone.  But one of the many pleasures of Joshua Zeitz’s study of Hay, his sidekick John Nicolay, and their deep, decades-long involvement with Abraham Lincoln the president and Abraham Lincoln the historical figure is encountering a much younger, less earnest John Hay, remembered by a friend as “a red-cheeked, black-eyed, sunshiny boy, chock-full of fun and devilment that hurt nobody.”  His “native intelligence,” Zeitz adds, “was rivaled only by his outsized personality and charm.”* 

Hay was only 21 years old and had just graduated from Brown when that intelligence and charm caught Lincoln’s attention, as did the less flamboyant talents of Bavarian-born John Nicolay, a newspaper editor six years Hay’s senior.  They were “prairie boys who met in 1851 and forged a close friendship that endured over a half century.  Fortune placed them in the right place (Springfield, Illinois) at the right time (1860) and offered them a front-row seat to one of the most tumultuous political and military upheavals in American history.”  The two young men became, as Zeitz observes, “literally and figuratively…closer to the president than anyone outside his immediate family.”

In less than 350 pages of briskly paced but thorough text, Zeitz follows “Lincoln’s Boys” to the White House, through the Civil War, and, most tellingly, through their successful postwar campaign to write what became an enormously influential 10-volume biography of their revered leader.  Zeitz, who did his graduate work at Brown (full disclosure: I met him when he was here, but haven’t seen him in years), writes with fluid vigor, with nary an extraneous word, and not a word out of place.  This is his third book, and, as might be expected of someone who has written for American Heritage magazine, his prose is both accessible and scholarly.

Zeitz brings Civil War Washington, DC, to grungy, stressful life.  Hay described the city as “a congeries of hotels, inharmoniously sown with temples.”  Their boss—whom they nicknamed, with youthful irreverence, “the Ancient” and “the Tycoon”—was, in Hay’s words, “extremely unmethodical….He would break through every regulation as fast as it was approved,” organizing a war effort while being hounded endlessly by politicians, pension-seekers, and others searching for favors or evangelizing for their favorite causes.  Although the “Boys” tried to control the chaos—one description painted Nicolay as a “bull-dog in the anteroom”—the tasks arrived pell-mell, relentlessly, throughout the war. Zeitz adds that “Lincoln never took a vacation.  He worked seven days each week, fifty-two weeks of the year.”  His secretaries were on call whenever the President was in the office. 

Contradicting the notions that no man is a hero to his valet and that familiarity breeds contempt, Nicolay and Hay developed deep respect, affection, even reverence for their leader.  Things happened too fast to be absorbed as they happened—like most, for example, they didn’t think that the Gettysburg Address was particularly significant when it was delivered.  But day by day, inexorably, Lincoln’s unique qualities and historical significance were borne in upon them.

With the war over and Lincoln gone, Nicolay and Hay stepped out of the whirlwind to tend to families and careers, with Hay getting his real start as a diplomat.  But the respite was brief.  While Republicans tried to reconstruct the South, forces for “reconciliation” gathered steam.  Hotheads and extremists on both sides had caused the problems between North and South, they said; it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding, but at least there was gallantry on both sides to celebrate.  Appalled, Nicolay and Hay turned to biography—and to Lincoln’s surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who possessed many crucial papers.  Abraham Lincoln was “our ideal hero,” Nicolay told him.  “We wish to delineate the grandeur of the era in which he lived, the far-reaching significance and influence of the events he led, and to set him in history as the type, the Preserver and Liberator of the People.”

“’I am getting together quite a little lot of books,’ Nicolay reported as early as 1876.  I think I have the foundation for a Rebellion Library….There must be between three and five hundred volumes…’”  Zeitz notes that “over the next decade, the oversize first-floor study in Nicolay’s Capitol Hill row house came to accommodate one of the largest private collections of Civil War documentation and secondary scholarship in the country.  Both men paid out of pocket for the materials.”  At a time when professional historical scholarship was in its infancy, and presidential libraries were hardly dreamed of, Nicolay and Hay were making their methods up as they went along. 

By the early 1880s, as the war continued to recede into memory, the project took on added urgency for its authors.  Century magazine announced plans to publish a massive series, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War:  “No time could be fitter for a publication of this kind than the present, when the passions and prejudices of the Civil War have nearly faded out of politics.”  Here, “motives will be weighed without malice, and valor praised without distinction of uniform.”  It was to be, Zeitz says, an epic “sanitized of race, ideology, or partisanship.” 

Serialization of Nicolay and Hay’s counterattack began late in 1886.  Zeitz handles the task of summarizing and analyzing the ten volumes—over 1.2 million words—with zest and aplomb.  The authors demonstrated, he says, both Lincoln’s greatness and his humanity.  At the same time, they devoted considerable space to context—Lincoln disappears from the narrative for long stretches, as Nicolay and Hay detail the tumultuous circumstances of the era.  Throughout, the slavery issue is front and center.  “Their tone of ‘aggressive Northernism’ ran against the popular current of sectional reunion,” Zeitz says, but “for at least half a century, the Nicolay-Hay volumes formed the basis of all major scholarship on Lincoln.”  And they are still players in the game today.

Zeitz’s engaging combination of biographical portraiture, political history, and historiographical analysis is a model of historical writing:  precise, vivid, nuanced, and persuasive, good enough, perhaps, to make even that stolid bust in the John Hay Library crack a smile. 

*Readers wanting a fuller treatment of Hay’s life and career can look into John Taliaferro’s recent All the Great Prizes:  The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, with over 550 pages of text.

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