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Book Review: Lincoln’s Boys

By (February 4, 2014) No Comment

Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay and the War for Lincoln’s Imagelincoln's boys cover

by Joshua Zeitz

Viking, 2014


The constellation of American Saints contains no brighter star than Abraham Lincoln, no purer light than the sad-eyed president who was assassinated just as he’d brought the country through the perilous years of civil war. Political partisans – and especially presidential candidates – frequently avail themselves of the magic that comes from invoking his name (and Hollywood was recently reminded that this magic is non-denominational); he is the Great Emancipator, the sod-floor sage, the homespun philosopher and canny commander-in-chief; he’s on the money, and his monument in Washington D.C. is the grandest and saddest piece of commemorative sculpture America has ever produced.

The main subject of Joshua Zeitz’s fascinating and smoothly readable new book Lincoln’s Boys is the creation of that bright starlight, that communal legend, and the book’s title gets right to the point: like George Washington before him and John F. Kennedy after him, Abraham Lincoln indulged in a mild and entirely benign ephebophilia, enjoying the quasi-paternal, quasi-fraternal company of young men, the stimulation that comes from testing thoughts and convictions against both their ignorance and their energy.

In Lincoln’s case, “the boys” were his two young private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, both of whom were in their early 20s when lucky circumstances brought them to live in the White House and wait on the pleasure of the beleaguered president. “Better than anyone else,” Zeitz writes, “they knew where the president was, what he was doing, and what he was thinking at almost every turn.” The first, more dutiful half of Lincoln’s Boys takes us on a competent and agreeable trot through the lives of these two young men both prior to and during their time in Lincoln’s service. For readers who missed John Taliaferro’s excellent biography of Hay, All The Great Prizes (and for those who know of Nicolay only what they read in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, since this fascinating, disagreeable man has never had a full-dress biography that I know of), these chapters will, in the inimitable book-reviewing neologism, fill in some much-needed blanks.

But Lincoln dies at the half-way point of this book, which gives you a pretty clear idea of where Zeitz’s true interests lie; the real story of Lincoln’s Boys is “one of the most successful exercises in historical revisionism in American history” – namely, the iron control exercised over the dead president’s memory by Hay and Nicolay (and Lincoln’s own family, though there’s hardly a division between the two). The secretaries had sole access to the vast trove of Lincoln’s papers (which weren’t opened to the public until a mind-boggling 1947), which certainly didn’t stop biographers from swarming onto their subject in the wake of the assassination. In addition to capturing public interest, there was also a good deal of money to be made in writing about the nation’s newest martyr. Josiah Holland, for instance, editor of the Springfield, Massachusetts Springfield Republican, wrote an 1866 Life of Abraham Lincoln that was almost entirely fictional (“the book reinvented Lincoln from whole cloth,” Zeitz tells us) and yet managed to sell 100,000 copies – and there were half a dozen other spurious but extremely lucrative dashed-off works of a similar nature.

Hay and Nicolay eventually settled on the polar opposite of dashed-off: they compiled a 10-volume biography of their slain chief, appearing from 1885 to 1890, completely unread in its day and forever afterward but mined extensively by every Lincoln biographer ever since. “It is easy to forget how widely underrated Lincoln the president, and Lincoln the man, were on the eve of his death,” Zeitz quite rightly reminds us – and his two main characters devoted their lives to making sure no future generation could possibly forget or underrate Lincoln. They were the authors of this particular saint’s life, and in Hay’s case, sainthood was pitching things a little low: he claimed Lincoln’s enemies “know no more of him than an owl does of a comet blazing into his blinking eyes.” According to him, Lincoln was “Republicanism incarnate, with all its faults and its virtues. As, in spite of some evidences, Republicanism is the sole hope of a sick world, so Lincoln, with all his foibles, is the greatest character since Christ.”

In the post-war environment, these two gospel-writers had their work cut out for them:

Writing against the rising currents of Southern apologia and a popular vogue for reunion and reconciliation, Hay and Nicolay pioneered the “Northern” interpretation of the Civil War – an interpretation whose influence waxed and waned but that created a standard against which every other historian and polemicist had to stake out his or her position.

(This part of Lincoln’s Boys – the dissection of Hay and Nicolay’s editorial motives – could have become quite dicey, since books that even hint at criticizing Lincoln don’t tend to do well on Father’s Day, but Zeitz handles it with a masterful delicacy; in order to elevate Lincoln’s memory, the secretaries often found it necessary to slight the reputations of Lincoln’s enemies, most notably Salmon P. Chase and especially Union General George McClellan, and Zeitz does his readers the favor of not burying that and similar facts.)

Lincoln-mania has held the United States and the world ever since his death (and it continues still: on no account should you miss, for example, Jerome Charyn’s new novel I am Abraham), and the great merit of Zeitz’s book is to remind us that all webs have weavers – and possibly also that even magicians with the best of intentions are still casting spells:

After his death, friend and foe alike tried to humanize the man, in ways that often vulgarized his legacy. Others, like Charles Francis Adams and the comte de Paris, continued to see his political ascent as a mistake of fortune and his success as president the result of good counsel from a strong cabinet. Nicolay and Hay blasted the foundation of this narrative and in its place created a lasting image. The man on the $5 bill became the one-page distillation often volumes and fifteen years of labor.