When John G. Nicolay and John Hay published excerpts from their 4,700-page biography of Lincoln in the Century Magazine starting in 1886, some readers found the balance between historical background and biographical foreground risibly lopsided. [1] One commentator, who had "a very great interest in Lincoln" and was "disappointed at finding so little concerning him,"[2] declared, "The Century for March continues its biographical remarks on the great men of Abraham Lincoln's time, with a few bits of irrelevancy about Lincoln himself thrown in. The historical narrative that Messrs. Hay and Nicolay are giving us is a great success as a picture of days gone by, and it is a great pity that it should be marred by those personal details of an obscure Illinois lawyer which we notice have crept into the story from time to time." This puckish reviewer complained that the title of Nicolay and Hay's work constituted false advertising: "We sometimes feel discouraged over the tendency our literary men have to misname their works. 'Abraham Lincoln,' by Messrs. Nicolay and Hay, would properly be christened 'From Boone to Booth; or, the Surprising Adventures of Senator Tom, Governor Dick, and Congressman Harry, in the Early Days of the Roaring Republic.'" [3] Two months later this same re- Page  [End Page 1] viewer cautioned readers that "the picture of the Pharaohs in the last Century must not be mistaken for illustrations in the 'Life of Lincoln.' The authors of that exhaustive biography passed the Pharaohs several numbers back, and are understood to be well along in their retrospective summary of the Middle Ages." [4]

It was a legitimate complaint. As Harry E. Pratt noted, the ten-volume work has been "justly criticized as more of a history of the Civil War than a life of Lincoln." [5] At one point, Lincoln virtually disappears from view for 395 pages as the authors give what their editor, Richard Watson Gilder, called "the secret history of the secession conspiracy."[6] One of Hay's biographers, William Roscoe Thayer, rightly observed that at times "the narrative, instead of flowing forward like a river, seems to stagnate in a lagoon or to lose itself in some subterranean channel." The book is, as Thayer put it, more "an historical quarry or encyclopedia" than a true biography. [7] Another Hay biographer, Tyler Dennett, thought the title "Abraham Lincoln: A Chronicle would have been better" than Abraham Lincoln: A History.[8]

Contemporaries also protested against the unabashedly partisan tone of the biography, which at times reads like a 1,500,000-word Republican campaign tract. Nicolay and Hay waved the bloody shirt vigorously, portraying Democrats as vicious traitors, while at the same time fulsomely defending every action of the Grand Old Party. Hay frankly referred to the biography as a "ponderous Republican history."[9] Augustus St. Gaudens, a vast admirer of Lincoln, complained of the Nicolay and Hay biography as it appeared month after month in the Century: "How damn partizan it's getting!" He disliked all the "pitching in, calling names, etc."[10] Even Gilder, their enthusiastic editor, tempered his extravagant praise of the work by noting, "Your sanction of right and natural indig- Page  [End Page 2] nation at wrong sometimes injures the necessary philosophical equipoise." [11] Gilder warned Nicolay and Hay that "partisanship has been charged, and doubtless will be charged.... It may be that future historians, and critics of history, will be less severe in the judgment of some you have thought it right to condemn." [12]

The most conspicuous victim of their condemnation was George B. McClellan, whom Hay eviscerated in his chapters on the Army of the Potomac. To Nicolay, Hay confided, "I have toiled and labored through ten chapters over him (McC). I think I have left the impression of his mutinous imbecility, and I have done it in a perfectly courteous manner.... It is of the utmost moment that we should seem fair to him, while we are destroying him."[13] In discussing the failure of McClellan to come to Pope's assistance at Second Bull Run, Hay declared: "McClellan['s] ... conduct from beginning to end can only be condemned."[14] At the close of those chapters Hay bluntly concluded that "the candid historian of the future will have no sentiment but wonder when he comes to tell the story of his long mismanagement of a great, brave, and devoted army, backed by a Government which strained every nerve to support him, and by a people whose fiery zeal would have made him the idol of the nation if he had given them the successes which their sacrifices deserved, and which were a dozen times within his grasp."[15] (This judgment, it should be noted, resembles that of McClellan's most recent biographer, Stephen W. Sears, who contended that his subject was "inarguably the worst" general to lead the Army of the Potomac.) [16]

Publicly, Nicolay and Hay did not acknowledge their partisanship. In the introduction to their biography, they emphatically asserted their impartiality: "We claim for our work that we have devoted to it twenty years of almost unremitting assiduity; that we have neglected no means in our power to ascertain the truth; that we have rejected no authentic facts essential to a candid story; that we have had no theory to establish, no personal grudge to gratify, no unavowed objects to subserve. We have aimed to write a Page  [End Page 3] sufficiently full and absolutely honest history of a great man and a great time; and ... we claim that there is not a line in all these volumes dictated by malice or unfairness.... If we gained nothing else by our long association with Mr. Lincoln we hope at least that we acquired from him the habit of judging men and events with candor and impartiality. The material placed in our hands was unexampled in value and fullness; we have felt the obligation of using it with perfect fairness. We have striven to be equally just to friends and to adversaries; where the facts favor our enemies we have recorded them ungrudgingly; where they bear severely upon statesmen and generals whom we have loved and honored we have not scrupled to set them forth, at the risk of being accused of coldness and ingratitude to those whom we have lived on terms of intimate friendship." [17]

Privately, Nicolay rejected "accusations of partisanship," declaring that "we stand in no awe of them. We deny that it is partisanship to use the multiplication table, reverence the Decalogue, or obey the Constitution of the United States. When logic, morals and law all unite to condemn the secession and rebellion of 1861, he will be a rash critic to pronounce censure upon any who helped put down that secession and rebellion, or who venture truthfully to record its incidents." [18] When in 1881 Nicolay published a short book, The Outbreak of Rebellion,[19] that was criticized for its partisanship, Hay told him, "All the reviews acknowledged its merits of style, accuracy, and readableness—but nearly every one objected to its tone of aggressive Northernism. This was a surprise to me. I read it in MS. and thought it perfectly fair and candid—but I am of that age, and imbued with all its prejudices." [20]

In fact "aggressive Northernism" characterizes Abraham Lincoln: A History, which described as "absurdly insignificant" the grievances cited to justify secession and deplored the "barbarous" conduct of the "traitors" and "conspirators" who dragged the cotton states out of the Union. [21] The authors ridiculed Governor William H. Gist's message to the South Carolina legislature for resting on an "absurd contradiction in terms."[22] At the close of their lengthy history of the secession movement, they sermonized thus: Page  [End Page 4]

In ages happily past, the anger of a king, the caprice of a mistress, or the ambition of a minister has often deluged a nation in blood. But in our day the conscience of civilization demands that the sword shall only defend the life of governments, and the life, liberty, and property of their subjects. It has ordained that written constitutions shall decide claims of rulers and rights of citizens. Casuistry the most adroit could not prove the right of free States to expel the slave States for believing the institution of slavery to be a substantial blessing; equally absurd was the doctrine that slave States had a right to destroy the Union by secession because the free States thought slavery a moral, social, and political evil. [23]
In passages like this, Nicolay and Hay regressed to their earlier days as editorial writers.

Hay told Nicolay that when composing their biography they must strike a balance between sternness and indulgence:

We must not show ourselves to the public in the attitude of two old dotards fighting over again the politics of their youth.... We must not write a stump speech in eight vols.... We will not fall in with the present tone of blubbering sentiment, of course. But we ought to write the history of those times like two everlasting angels—who know everything, judge everything, tell the truth ab[ou]t everything and don't care a twang of their harps about one side or the other. There will be one exception. We are Lincoln men all the way through. But in other little matters, let us look at men as insects and not blame the black beetle because he is not a grasshopper. [24]

Abraham Lincoln: A History bristles with editorial asides reflecting the authors' conservative laissez-faire ideology. In his discussion of the massive Illinois internal improvements scheme of the 1830s, Hay declared: "It was too much to expect of the Illinois Legislature ... that it should understand that the best thing it could do to forward this prosperous tendency of things was to do nothing; for this is a lesson which has not yet been learned by any legislature in the world."[25] The hostility to socialism that formed the core of Hay's novel The Bread-Winners creeps into the Lincoln biography. Speaking of Chief Black Hawk, Hay observed: "He had come to believe that he had been foully wronged by the treaty Page  [End Page 5] which was his own act; he had even convinced himself that 'land cannot be sold,' a proposition in political economy which our modern socialists would be puzzled to accept or confute." [26]

If some contemporaries objected to Nicolay and Hay's partisanship, others wondered if they had tailored their story to please Robert Todd Lincoln, who—it was believed—pressured the biographers to paint a flattering portrait of his father and other members of the family. Lincoln's third law partner, William H. Herndon, harbored such suspicions: Nicolay and Hay "handle things with silken gloves and 'a camel-hair pencil,'" Herndon protested; "they do not write with an iron pen." They were "writing the life of Lincoln under the surveillance of 'Bob' Lincoln." Nicolay and Hay, Herndon guessed, "are afraid of Bob; he gives them materials and they in their turn play hush."[27] Milton Hay, a lawyer who had known Lincoln well in Springfield, chided his nephew John for being too solicitous of Robert Todd Lincoln's sensibilities. After reading the account of Lincoln's broken engagement with Mary Todd, Milton Hay told John: "I think the explanation of his [Lincoln's] morbidity about his contemplated marriage would have been easier for you but for your regard for Rob[er]t Lincoln's feelings." [28]

In fact, Robert Todd Lincoln was, as David C. Mearns put it, the "silent partner" in the composition of Abraham Lincoln: A History.[29] The authors did not dare offend Robert, who controlled access to his father's papers. They ran the greatest risk of offense in chronicling the story of Lincoln's early life, which was Hay's assignment. In 1884, Hay told Robert that "every line has been written in a spirit of reverence and regard." But, Hay added, "you may find here and there words or sentences which do not suit you. I write you now to request that you will read with a pencil in your hand and strike out everything to which you object. I will adopt your view in all cases whether I agree with it or not, but I cannot help hoping that you will find nothing objectionable."[30] Robert accepted this invitation to wield his blue pencil, which he used to strike out several passages reflecting poorly on his grandfather, Thomas Lincoln, and Page  [End Page 6] one that he thought did no credit to his father. The complete manuscript of the biography is not extant, but from the fragments preserved in the Illinois State Historical Library and at Brown University, we can learn what upset him.

Robert objected most strenuously to Hay's depiction of his grandfather, Thomas Lincoln. Hay told Gilder, "The only weak link in the chain is Tom Lincoln—but I can't dwell on that. His grandson is extremely sensitive about it. It is not an ignoble feeling in R. T. L. He says 'he feels sorry for the old man, and does not think it right to jump on him, in the broad light of his son's fame.'"[31] (Recent scholarship suggests that Hay's view of Thomas Lincoln was accurate.) [32] The italicized portions of the following excerpts from the first chapter were cut by Hay at Robert's request:

Thomas, to whom were reserved the honors of an illustrious paternity, appears never to have done any else especially deserving of mention. He was an idle, roving, inefficient, good natured man, as the son of a widow is apt to be according to the Spanish proverb. He had no vices so far as we can learn but he also had no virtues to speak of. He learned the trade of a carpenter but accomplished little of it.... he seems to have resembled his son in appearance. Men like him may be seen every day in Western rural towns, fond of story-telling, of talking things over by the red-hot stove of tavern bar-rooms, or in the cool door ways of livery stables, according to the season. He was a Jackson Democrat, as those of his kind usually were. He was discursive in his religious affiliations, changing his church about as often as he changed his residence, but died a member of the Disciples or "Campbellite" Baptist Church.

... It required full as earnest and intelligent industry to persuade a living out of those barren hillocks, and weedy hollows covered with stunted and scrubby underbrush, as it would amid the rocks and sands of the Northern coast. But neither the will nor the intelligence was there.... Four years later, the unlucky farmer seemed about to belie his baleful reputation, for by one of those spasmodic efforts not unknown to men inherently indolent, he purchased without money as usual though not without price a fine farm.... The title, however, remained in him only a little while, and the spurt of enterprise died away into the habitual lan- Page  [End Page 7] guor of the man, and after his property had passed out of his control, he betook himself to the last resort of restless inefficiency, and looked about for another place where he owed no debts and could get fresh land for little or nothing.

Hay eliminated similar passages in the second chapter of the first draft.[33]

The following sentences were struck from what appears to be a later draft of the first chapter: "After the lapse of one hundred years, the standing of the [Lincoln] family is on the whole far below what it was at the Declaration of Independence. The President seems to have concentrated in himself the genius and virtue of all his race." [34] Also cut from this draft was Lincoln's own account of sewing shut the eyes of balky hogs. [35]

Hay promised to change the text to please Robert. "I will do what you suggest in final revision," he told Robert in 1885. "It is better, even as a matter of taste and without regard to your wishes which would, of course, be conclusive."[36] When Robert still seemed discontent, Hay again assured him that the ultimate say would be his: "I was very sorry to see by a letter you wrote to Nicolay the other day that you were still not satisfied with my assurance that I would make those first chapters right. Even before you read them I had struck out of my own copy here nearly everything you objected to.... Since then I have gone over the whole thing twice again, reading every line so far as possible from your point of view, and I don't think there is a word left in it that would displease you. But of course before final publication I shall give you another hack at it, with plenary blue-pencil powers." Hay told Robert that the biography would be reverential: "Year after year of study has shown me more clearly than ever how infinitely greater your father was than anybody about him, greater than ever we imagined while he lived. There is nothing to explain or apologize for from beginning to end. He is the one unapproachably great figure of a great epoch."[37] (In 1866 Hay had declared that "Lincoln with all his foibles, is the greatest character since Christ.")[38] Page  [End Page 8]

In the absence of the full manuscript, it is impossible to determine how much more blue-penciling Robert engaged in. There may have been precious little; Hay's 470 handwritten pages on Lincoln and the Army of the Potomac, now in the Library of Congress, bear no signs of Robert's censorship, nor do the two dozen chapters in the Hay Papers at Brown University. [39] David C. Mearns, a most thoughtful commentator on Robert Todd Lincoln's role in shaping Nicolay and Hay's work, noted that "his devotion to his father's memory was excessive. It was this extravagance which made him more inclined to idolaters than to realists." To a critic who suggested that Robert had "thwarted" history by heavily censoring Nicolay and Hay, Mearns replied, "Taste (not censorship, not thwarting) was always the most powerful influence over Colonel Hay." Robert, he shrewdly observed,

was throttled with more inhibitions, more inferiorities, than any other well-placed gentleman since the notorious Prince of Denmark. Still, he made a competent Secretary of War, and a charming ambassador to Victoria. He succeeded in business. He was a bit of a snob, perhaps, but he was not ignoble. A possible key to his character could be found in two of his relationships: he treated John Hay as an equal and John Nicolay as his father's hired man. He drew fine but insistent distinctions between public and private life: his mother was his own affair. He was not bent upon thwarting history but upon discharging the responsibilities of the heir of the Lincoln tradition. He considered it his duty to see that his father's place in history was irreproachable, unapproachable even unworldly. To that end, he surrendered himself to the mores of his time. He was, in other words, preponderantly his mother's son. [40]Page  [End Page 9]

As Mearns noted, Hay was devoted to good taste; that doubtless led him to engage in self-censorship as he described Lincoln's courtship and marriage. From interviews with Lincoln's friends, most notably Orville H. Browning, Nicolay and Hay had learned much about Lincoln's relations with Mary Todd. Browning had revealed that Lincoln had in 1841 broken his engagement to Miss Todd because he had fallen deeply in love with the eighteen-year-old beauty, Matilda Edwards, who did not reciprocate his feelings. Browning added that Lincoln's subsequent bout of intense depression was caused by his conflicted feelings:

Mr. Lincoln became very much attached to her (Miss Matilda Edwards) and finally fell desperately in love with her, and proposed to her, but she rejected him.... I think that Mr. Lincoln's aberration of mind resulted entirely from the situation he thus got himself into—he was engaged to Miss Todd, and in love with Miss Edwards, and his conscience troubled him dreadfully for the supposed injustice he had done, and the supposed violation of his word which he had committed. [41]

Apparently without any prompting from Robert, Hay discretely drew a veil over this chapter in Lincoln's intimate life:

It is as useless as it would be indelicate to seek to penetrate in detail the incidents and special causes which produced in his mind this darkness as of the valley of the shadow of death. There was probably nothing worth recording in them; we are only concerned with their effect upon a character which was to be hereafter for all time one of the possessions of the nation. It is enough for us to know that a great trouble came upon him, and that he bore it nobly after his kind. [42]

Browning also revealed that Mary Todd Lincoln's conduct as first lady had grieved her husband: "He has several times told me there [at the White House] that he was constantly under great apprehension lest his wife should do something which would bring him into disgrace." [43] Browning knew how Mary Lincoln had padded expense accounts and payrolls, accepted bribes and kickbacks, and Page  [End Page 10] engaged in other unethical practices.[44] Nicolay and Hay were also aware from first-hand experience how Mrs. Lincoln had illegally attached the wages of White House servants and tried to pilfer money from the White House stationery and manure funds. [45] This information they voluntarily suppressed, to avoid offending not only Robert but also their readers' Victorian sense of propriety (which they of course shared). Doubtless for similar reasons, they did not recount the story of Mary Lincoln's tantrums and jealous fits that Adam Badeau had publicly described in 1887.[46]

Nicolay and Hay also hesitated to offend other people, such as the daughter of Lincoln's exasperating secretary of the treasury, Salmon P. Chase. "There is enough in Chase's letters abusing Lincoln behind his back for a quiet scorcher," Hay told Nicolay, "but think of Mrs. Hoyt, if you please."[47] Mrs. Hoyt was Janet (Nettie) Ralston Chase, who lived until 1925.

Contemporaries objected that Abraham Lincoln: A History lacked a vivid description of Lincoln's personality and intimate life. As their editor, Gilder, told them, "There is some disappointment that Lincoln himself does not shine on every page of the History." Gilder himself did not object, for he knew "that the History is, in original material as well as in scope, just what we bargained for, and what I knew it was before its publication began. It has, moreover, been a great magazine success. It has both developed and proved an appetite on the part of the public for Lincoln pure and simple that we are extremely desirous to gratify." Gilder wanted Nicolay and Hay to produce a volume entitled "The Personal Traits of Lincoln," which they planned to write but never did.[48]

If some contemporaries found fault with Nicolay and Hay's work, many applauded it. William Dean Howells called it "not Page  [End Page 11] only ... the most important work yet accomplished in American history," but also "one of the noblest achievements of literary art."[49] In 1888 Robert Todd Lincoln told Hay, "You & Nicolay must be relieved in putting the finishing touches to your great work and you must be gratified at the reception of so much of it as has been published. Many people speak to me & confirm my own opinion of it as a work in every way excellent—not only sustaining but elevating my father's place in History. I shall never cease to be glad that the places you & Nicolay held near him & in his confidence were filled by you & not by others."[50] The historian James Ford Rhodes told them, "your book will demolish the modern theory that an author cannot write modern history impartially." [51]

Like Nicolay and Hay's contemporaries, modern historians differ sharply over the value of the biography. Allan Nevins condemned it roundly as "an appalling mixture of history and biography, the history now being completely outdated, and the biography so fulsome in its flattery, so blind to all Lincoln's shortcomings and defects as he grew up into greatness, that it is now almost worthless."[52]

Roy P. Basler, editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, took a more charitable view. In 1974, he told a biographer of Hay: "As, I suspect, one of the few people yet alive who once read Nicolay and Hay complete, ... I think it remains indispensable, especially for the presidency, and will not be superseded."[53] Basler pointed out that the authors "were writing not merely a biography of a public man but a history of the nation in his time." That history, Basler concluded,

stands up today in my opinion better than any other work so comprehensive, written by any historian contemporary of Nicolay and Hay. Comparing Sandburg or Randall's work on Lincoln's presidential years with N. & H., I do not find that either made revisions of the essential story told by N. & H., which stand out. They did fill in many niches, of course. On Lincoln's early life both Sandburg and Beveridge added some- Page  [End Page 12] thing, not only to N. & H.'s account but to Herndon's. On the whole, Beveridge, for all of his facade of documentation, was inaccurate to the extent that from the start he let his bias toward S. A. Douglas dictate his selection of fact and opinion. Sandburg erred by dumping everything in uncritically, but he mixed it with a flair that made the blend far truer to Lincoln than Beveridge in my opinion.... Nicolay and Hay seem to me to make use of the stuff of history as well as or better than most of their successors, including Bruce Catton. They did not choose, wisely I think, to write an intimate biography, because they were not equipped to do the job.... [Sandburg] absorbed it [Nicolay and Hay's biography] and then began stuffing himself with everything else he could clip out of any source available, to regurgitate like the poetic pigeon he was, something which many have found to be good reading, but Edmund Wilson found "insufferable." Sandburg simply could not have begun without reading Nicolay and Hay.[54]

Before the Lincoln papers became available to scholars in 1947, Nicolay and Hay's biography was a valuable "source book for history."[55] As William E. Barton put it, "The limitations of this work are known and lamented by all Lincoln students.... But even so, this work is an invaluable storehouse of authentic Lincoln material, prized and utilized by all Lincoln students."[56] But with the opening of the Lincoln papers and the publication of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln six years later, the Nicolay and Hay biography lost much of its usefulness as a source. Other original materials that they had used, such as Hay's White House diary and Nicolay's memos of presidential conversations, were also published by 1949 (though in editions failing to meet modern editorial standards).

So in 1998, what can be said of Abraham Lincoln: A History? Much of Allan Nevins's criticism is sound. To modern ears the implacably partisan and judgmental tone of Nicolay and Hay is so painfully unhistorical as to be virtually unreadable.[57] Instead of explain- Page  [End Page 13] ing why people behaved the way they did, the authors sit in judgment on that behavior, ladling out praise and blame like the Almighty separating the sheep from the goats on Judgment Day.

Their tendency to hero worship is wearying. As Harry E. Pratt noted, "To the authors, Lincoln's every act was wise and righteous."[58] An example occurs early in the biography when Hay commented on Lincoln's decision to join the Whig rather than the Democratic party:

It showed some moral courage, and certainly an absence of the shuffling politician's fair-weather policy, that Lincoln, in his obscure and penniless youth, at the very beginning of his career, when he was not embarrassed by antecedents or family connections, and when, in fact, what little social influence he knew would have led him the other way, chose to oppose a furiously intolerant majority, and to take his stand with the party which was doomed to long-continued defeat in Illinois. The motives which led him to take this decisive course are not difficult to imagine. The better sort of people in Sangamon County were Whigs, though the majority were Democrats, and he preferred through life the better sort to the majority. [59]

This passage illustrates another quality of the biography that grates on modern sensibilities: class snobbishness. After the initial chapters appeared in the Century, C. O. Poole observed that Nicolay and Hay "are aiming ... to make a story popular with the 'classes' as against the 'masses.' It will result in delineating the real Lincoln about as well as does a wax figure in the museum."[60] Hay in particular cherished "respectability" and looked contemptuously upon the "vulgar." Anyone who slogs through all ten volumes may eventually sympathize with the journalist and historian David Rankin Barbee, who declared that "Hay was such a damned intellectual snob,—so superior to everybody, including Jehovah, that you want to puke as you read him."[61]

The endless stretches where Lincoln disappears also tax the pa- Page  [End Page 14] tience of a modern reader, especially when those tedious chapters of historical background have been superseded by scholars whose research is far more extensive than Nicolay and Hay's. One of the more soporific chapters, "The Ohio Line," begins thus:

The American rebellion cannot be studied without constantly bearing in mind the immense geographical area of the United States. From the Allegheny mountains to the Mississippi River, across a territorial breadth of nine degrees of longitude, runs the Ohio River in a south-westerly course; beginning at Pittsburgh among the western spurs of the Alleghenies and ending at Cairo, where it empties itself into the Mississippi.... At Cairo, the thousand miles of navigation of the Ohio are joined to another thousand miles of navigation southward to New Orleans, and an additional thousand northward on the Mississippi to St. Paul not to mention the Missouri River and various other tributaries.[62]

Also tedious are long stretches where Nicolay and Hay quote extensively from documents, many of which they alone had access to, including letters to Lincoln and passages from diaries kept by cabinet members and influential military figures. At times, Abraham Lincoln: A History reads like a massively annotated version of Lincoln's collected writings; the entire first inaugural is given verbatim. At other times, the biography resembles a documentary history of the war; eight uninterrupted pages are devoted to reproducing the correspondence of the governor of South Carolina. [63]

Nicolay and Hay treat Lincoln's early life skimpily. Pratt marveled that "they covered the first forty years of Lincoln's life in 282 of the 4,709 pages of the work." [64] They did not avail themselves of the best source of information about those years: the interviews and correspondence sedulously conducted and assembled by William H. Herndon. [65] Herndon rightly complained, "Some of the finest episodes in L's young life are omitted or evaded or smothered up in words."[66] Page  [End Page 15]

Another flaw in the biography is Nicolay and Hay's tendency to rewrite the documents they quote. Passages from Nicolay's interviews and memoranda of conversations are spruced up when incorporated into the text. Most important, the Lincoln who emerges from the ten volumes is, as Nathaniel Wright Stephenson complained, "exasperatingly conventional,—always the saint and the hero."[67] Lincoln's humanity disappears beneath the filiopietistic encomiums heaped upon him. Seldom do we see him vent his anger, succumb to depression, tell bawdy stories, reject his father, cruelly ridicule his opponents, toss off a clever pun, suffer domestic misery in a woe-filled marriage, or scramble for political preferment. He becomes an insufferably respectable paragon of bourgeois virtues. No attempt is made to analyze or illuminate his inner life. As Herndon rightly complained, the authors "have suppressed many facts, material facts, of Lincoln's life." Rhetorically Herndon asked, "Do you call this history, do you call it biography? No wonder that L. had a contempt for all history and biography." [68]

Yet, despite the biography's abundant flaws, today's Lincoln student owes a debt to Nicolay and Hay, partly because Abraham Lincoln: A History contains valuable passages based on their own personal observations in Springfield and Washington. As they noted in their introduction,

We were the daily and nightly witnesses of the incidents, the anxieties, the fears, and the hopes which pervaded the Executive Mansion and the National Capital. The President's correspondence, both official and private, passed through our hands; he gave us his full confidence. We had personal acquaintance and daily official intercourse with Cabinet Officers, Members of Congress, Governors, and Military and Naval Officers of all grades, whose affairs brought them to the White House. [69]

Illuminating passages, buried amid chapters of outmoded history that Hay himself called "dull,"[70] might profitably be excerpted and published as a single volume that would still be worthwhile read- Page  [End Page 16] ing for specialist and layperson alike. [71] Here is a sample of what I mean, a description of Washington in April 1861:

The city was full of strangers; the White House full of applicants from the North. At any hour of the day one might see at the outer door and on the staircase, one line going, one coming. In the anteroom and in the broad corridor adjoining the President's office there was a restless and persistent crowd,—ten, twenty, sometimes fifty, varying with the day and hour,—each one in pursuit of one of the many crumbs of official patronage. They walked the floor; they talked in groups; they scowled at every arrival and blessed every departure; they wrangled with the door-keepers for the right of entrance; they intrigued with them for surreptitious chances; they crowded forward to get even as much as an instant's glance through the half-opened door into the Executive chamber. They besieged the Representatives and Senators who had privilege of precedence; they glared with envy at the Cabinet Ministers who, by right and usage, pushed through the throng and walked unquestioned through the doors. At that day the arrangement of the rooms compelled the President to pass through this corridor and the midst of this throng when he went to his meals at the other end of the Executive Mansion; and thus, once or twice a day, the waiting expectants would be rewarded by the chance of speaking a word, or handing a paper direct to he President himself—a chance which the more bold and persistent were not slow to improve.[72]

In the fifteen pages that follow this excerpt, Nicolay and Hay vividly recreate the atmosphere in Washington as the war began.

Other such passages include Hay's description of society in Springfield,[73] Lincoln's formation of a cabinet,[74] the crisis presented by Fort Sumter,[75] the White House defended by the Frontier Guard,[76] Lincoln's interviews with Maryland leaders,[77] the uncertainty that pervaded the capital as southern-born military aban- Page  [End Page 17] doned their posts,[78] how the news of First Bull Run was received at the White House,[79] Lincoln's relations with McClellan,[80] his handling of the delicate questions of emancipation and African American troops, [81] his relations with the three key cabinet members (Stanton, Seward, and Chase),[82] and the foundations of his fame.[83]

These passages contain few recollected words of Lincoln, for, as the authors said, "It is not our custom to quote Mr. Lincoln's expressions from memory." [84] Occasionally, however, they violated their rule. "We must not forget," they have the president say at the outbreak of the war, "that the people of the seceded States, like those of the loyal ones, are American citizens, with essentially the same characteristics and powers. Exceptional advantages on one side are counterbalanced by exceptional advantages on the other. We must make up our minds that man for man the soldier from the South will be a match for the soldier from the North and vice versa." [85] Usually when Nicolay and Hay quoted what they heard Lincoln say, they reproduced passages from Hay's diary or Nicolay's memoranda of presidential conversations.

But even more important, Nicolay and Hay assembled a rich cache of research material that no modern biographer or historian can afford to ignore—though most have. The Hay Papers at Brown University and the Library of Congress, the Nicolay-Hay Collection in the Illinois State Historical Library, and the Nicolay Papers at the Library of Congress contain transcripts of interviews, such as the one with Orville Browning, that shed much new light on Lincoln.

In the early 1870s, as they laid plans for their biography, Nicolay and Hay intended to speak with Lincoln's friends. Throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s, Nicolay interviewed dozens of men who had known Lincoln. Some of the interviews took place in Springfield. "[Norman B.] Judd ought to be thoroughly interviewed, and all the Springfield luminaries," Hay told Nicolay in 1872.[86] In keeping with this suggestion, Nicolay visited the Illinois Page  [End Page 18] capital in June and July 1875 and talked with Browning, Milton Hay, William Butler, Stephen T. Logan, John Todd Stuart, Peter Van Bergen, Ozias M. Hatch, C. M. Smith, H. S. Greene, and Jesse K. Dubois. He returned briefly four years later and spoke with John W. Bunn and once again with Hatch. Browning's diary indicates that Nicolay took extensive notes while interviewing.[87]

Nicolay also conducted many interviews in Washington. With the help of Robert Todd Lincoln, he became marshal of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1872 and held the post for fifteen years.[88] During that time, he spoke with members of Lincoln's cabinet (Simon Cameron, John P. Usher, James Speed), his vice president in the first term (Hannibal Hamlin), and senators and representatives. To Clarence Clough Buel, Hay exclaimed with mock surprise that someone's recollections of Lincoln "had a fair chance of being true, which is strong language to use of a Lincoln reminiscence."[89] In 1885, Hay asked his editor, "Can you remember things? I have to rely exclusively on documents. I would not trust my recollection in the slightest matter of historical interest—yet every newspaper is full of long stories—in the utmost detail—telling us all about the great men and deeds of the past. I, who knew them all, have not a word to say."[90]

For all his skepticism about reminiscences, Hay thought anecdotes about public men as important as their personal correspondence. "Real history is not to be found in books, but in the personal anecdotes and private letters of those who make history," he told a friend a few years before his death. "These reveal the men themselves and the motives that actuate them, and give us also their estimate of those who are associated with them. No one Page  [End Page 19] should ever destroy a private letter that contains light on public men, or willingly let die an illuminating anecdote disclosing their individuality."[91]

Despite the problems posed by faulty memory, interviews (if used with caution) are valuable sources; it is a shame that Nicolay and Hay did not conduct more of them. How much richer our store of information about the presidency would be if they had as diligently tracked down Lincoln's associates in Washington as Herndon had done in the Midwest!

Snippets of Nicolay's interviews are quoted in Abraham Lincoln: A History and in Helen Nicolay's Personal Traits of Abraham Lincoln, but much of the best material has never appeared in print. (In 1996, the Southern Illinois University Press remedied that situation by publishing An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln that reproduces all of Nicolay's interviews.)

In addition, Nicolay and Hay received informative letters from readers of their biography who offered additions and corrections to the story they told. Some of these letters are quoted in Abraham Lincoln: A History but most are not. They too provide fresh information about various aspects of Lincoln's life.

In conclusion, I would like to make a larger point about Lincoln scholarship. Not only in the papers of Nicolay and Hay but also in those of many other Lincoln writers—including Ida M. Tarbell, Jesse W. Weik, Carl Sandburg, Albert J. Beveridge, Allan Nevins, Isaac N. Arnold, James G. Randall, Josiah G. Holland, and William E. Barton—can be found invaluable source material, especially interviews, that historians have unaccountably neglected. This is also true of newspapers, whose editors sent reporters out each February to chat with acquaintances of Lincoln. It would be a valuable contribution to Lincoln studies if the source material in those collections and in newspapers were published in scholarly, annotated editions that would serve as an indispensable supplement to The Collected Works and the forthcoming edition of Lincoln's legal papers, now being edited by Cullom Davis. The University of Illinois Press will soon publish Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis's excellent scholarly edition of the interviews conducted by William H. Herndon. If publishers would bring out similar editions of the interviews and other original materials in the collections mentioned above and in newspapers, they would help provide straw which future Lincoln scholars can use as they create their brick edifices. Page  [End Page 20]


  1. Forty excerpts appeared in the Century between 1886 and 1890.return to text
  2. A. Mitchell to Richard Watson Gilder, New York, Mar. 28, 1887, Century Collection, New York Public Library. return to text
  3. Life, Mar. 17, 1887. The following month Life again poked fun at Nicolay and Hay: "A new game which properly comes under the head of Sport is 'Progressive Lincoln.' A copy of the Century Magazine is placed on each of the play-tables, which are arranged as in Progressive Euchre. The players then proceed to find anything they can about Abraham Lincoln in the 'History of the Martyred President' now running in the Magazine. Those who find five remarks about him first are declared winners and move forward, while those who fail retrogress, as in all the progressive games now so popular. "The game is destined to become a great favorite with society people, but one precaution should always be taken. Chapters of the history which contain five allusions to the subject must be provided for the game, otherwise the evening is likely to go by without any winners, and drag correspondingly" (Life, Apr. 4, 1887).return to text
  4. Life, May 12, 1887. return to text
  5. Harry E. Pratt, "Lincoln Literature," Illinois Libraries 24 (1942): 35.return to text
  6. Gilder, quoted in David C. Mearns, The Lincoln Papers: The Story of the Collection with Selections to July 4, 1861, 2 vols. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1948), 1:79. return to text
  7. William Roscoe Thayer, The Life and Letters of John Hay, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), 2:50. return to text
  8. Tyler Dennett, John Hay: From Poetry to Politics (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1934), 135–36. return to text
  9. Hay to Nicolay, New York, Friday (only day given but ca. 1889 or 1890), Hay Papers, Brown University (in a folder marked "Abraham Lincoln: A History, Correspondence with Gilder, Buel & Nicolay") (hereinafter cited as HPBU). return to text
  10. Gilder to Nicolay, quoted in Helen Nicolay, Lincoln's Secretary: A Biography of John G. Nicolay (New York: Longmans, Green, 1949), 298.return to text
  11. Ibid., 299.return to text
  12. Gilder to Nicolay and Hay, New York, Jan. 2, 1890, HPBU.return to text
  13. Hay to Nicolay, Cleveland, Aug. 10, 1885, HPBU.return to text
  14. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, 10 vols. (New York: Century, 1890), 6:24. return to text
  15. Ibid., 6:193.return to text
  16. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (New York: Tick-nor and Fields, 1988), xii. return to text
  17. Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 1:x-xi, xiii.return to text
  18. Nicolay to Gilder, Washington, Jan. 24, 1890, copy, Nicolay Papers, Library of Congress (hereinafter cited as NPLC).return to text
  19. Campaigns of the Civil War (New York: Scribner's, 1881), vol. 1.return to text
  20. Hay to Nicolay, Cleveland, Aug. 10, 1885, HPBU.return to text
  21. Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 3:31, 21. return to text
  22. Ibid., 2:330.return to text
  23. Ibid., 3:274.return to text
  24. Hay to Nicolay, Cleveland, Aug. 10, 1885, HPBU.return to text
  25. Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 1:133. return to text
  26. Ibid., 1:88.return to text
  27. Herndon to Weik, Chicago, Jan. 2, and Springfield, Jan. 22, 1887, in Emanuel Hertz, ed., The Hidden Lincoln: From the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon (New York: Viking, 1938), 152, 158.return to text
  28. Milton Hay to John Hay, Springfield, Feb. 8, 1887, HPBU.return to text
  29. Mearns, Lincoln Papers, 1:74. return to text
  30. Hay to Robert Todd Lincoln, Cleveland, Jan. 27, 1885, Mearns, Lincoln Papers, 1:75. return to text
  31. Hay to Gilder, Dec. 29, [1886], Lincoln File, Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. return to text
  32. See Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 21–42; John Y. Simon, House Divided: Lincoln and His Father (Fort Wayne: Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum, 1987).return to text
  33. Benjamin P. Thomas, Portrait for Posterity: Lincoln and His Biographers (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1947), 112–15. return to text
  34. Hay, "The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln," 3, HPBU.return to text
  35. Ibid., 44.return to text
  36. Hay to Lincoln, Apr. 20, 1885, Mearns, Lincoln Papers, 1:75.return to text
  37. Hay to Lincoln, Jan. 6, 1886, ibid. return to text
  38. Hay to William H. Herndon, Paris, Sept. 5, 1866, Herndon-Weik Papers, Library of Congress. return to text
  39. Evelyn W. Symington Collection, Library of Congress; Hay Papers, Brown University. The "Abraham Lincoln and the Army of the Potomac" manuscript in the Library of Congress contains the following chapters: vol. 4, chap. 25; vol. 5, chaps. 9, 10, 20–24; vol. 6, chaps. 1, 7, 9, 10; vol. 7, chaps. 4, 8, 9; vol. 8, chap. 9. At Brown in a 317–page manuscript volume entitled "Lincoln. The End of the Civil War" are drafts of vol. 7, chap. 16; vol. 8, chaps. 14, 15; vol. 9, chaps. 7, 10, 13, 14, 18; vol. 10, chaps. 2, 3, 8, 9, 12, 14–18. In addition, there are typescripts of vol. 6, chaps. 7, 9; vol. 8, chaps. 11, 12; vol. 10, chaps. 2, 4, 5. Hay also says in correspondence that he wrote chapter 8 of volume 9. In addition, a 287-page draft of the first seventeen chapters of volume 1 is bound under the title "The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln." This seems to be a later draft than the scattered early chapters in the Illinois State Historical Library at Springfield. Thus, Hay wrote at least 59 of the 224 chapters.return to text
  40. Mearns to Otto Eisenschiml, Washington, Oct. 2, 1951, copy, Mearns Papers, Library of Congress. return to text
  41. Browning, interview by Nicolay, Springfield, June 17, 1875, in Michael Burlingame, ed., An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay's Interviews and Essays (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996), 1. return to text
  42. Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 1:201. return to text
  43. Burlingame, ed. Oral History, 3. return to text
  44. See the passages in Browning's diary dated July 29 and 31, 1861, Mar. 3, 1862, and July 3, 1875, which were made available to the public only in 1993.return to text
  45. See Michael Burlingame, Honest Abe, Dishonest Mary (Racine, Wis.: Lincoln Fellowship of Wisconsin, 1994).return to text
  46. Adam Badeau, "Was Mrs. Lincoln Insane?" New York World, Jan. 9, 1887. A clipping of this article, which tells at great length the story of Mrs. Lincoln's irrational conduct in March 1865 at City Point, Virginia, is among Nicolay and Hay's notes for their biography (HPBU).return to text
  47. Hay to Nicolay, Cleveland, Aug. 29, 1885, HPBU.return to text
  48. Gilder to Nicolay and Hay, New York, June 16, 1888, NPLC; Nicolay to Hay, Washington, June 22, 1888, HPBU. Nicolay's daughter Helen compiled such a volume which appeared in 1912. Hay did write "Life in the White House in Lincoln's Time," which appeared in the Century in November 1890, but he wrote no other such sketches.return to text
  49. Harper's Monthly, 82 (Feb. 1891), 478–82, reproduced in George Monteiro and Brenda Murphy, eds., John-Hay-Howells Letters (Boston: Twayne, 1980), 141. return to text
  50. Lincoln to Hay, Chicago, Apr. 14, 1888, Evelyn Symington Collection, Library of Congress. return to text
  51. Mearns, Lincoln Papers, 1:80. return to text
  52. Nevins to Ida M. Tarbell, New York, May 30, 1939, Tarbell Papers, Allegheny College, Meadville, Pa. return to text
  53. Basler to Robert Gale, Feb. 5, 1974, copy, Basler Papers, Library of Congress.return to text
  54. Basler to Robert Gale, Feb. 15, 1974, copy, Basler Papers, Library of Congress. A recent poll of Lincoln authors ranked Nicolay and Hay among the ten best books on Lincoln ever written (Civil War Times Illustrated, Dec. 1995, p. 38).return to text
  55. Mearns, Lincoln Papers, 1:81. return to text
  56. William E. Barton, "The Lincoln of the Biographers," Transactions of Illinois State Historical Society, vol. 36 (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1929), 103. Harry E. Pratt echoed Barton, calling the biography "an invaluable storehouse of authentic material" (Pratt, "Lincoln Literature," 35).return to text
  57. "Certainly they have the partisan attitude." J. C. Fitzpatrick to James G. Randall, Washington, Mar. 12, 1935, Randall Papers, Library of Congress.return to text
  58. Pratt, "Lincoln Literature," 35. return to text
  59. Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 1:104–5.return to text
  60. Poole, quoted in Herndon to Jesse W. Weik, Chicago, Dec. 24, 1886, in Hertz, Hidden Lincoln, 151. return to text
  61. David Rankin Barbee to Stephen I. Gilchrist, Washington, Apr. 2, 1933, quoted in William H. Townsend to Edward C. Stone, Lexington, Ky., Mar. 6, 1945, copy, F. Lauriston Bullard Papers, Boston University.return to text
  62. Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 4:192. return to text
  63. Ibid., 2:306–14. return to text
  64. Pratt, "Lincoln Literature," 35. return to text
  65. They declined a chance to buy the copies of the Herndon interviews that Ward Hill Lamon owned. Hay to Nicolay, New York, Sept. 18, 1887, HPBU. They did make use of Lamon's biography, which was based mainly on those interviews. return to text
  66. Herndon to Weik, Springfield, Jan. 22, 1887, in Hertz, Hidden Lincoln, 157.return to text
  67. William Peterfield Trent et al., eds., The Cambridge History of American Literature, 4 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons), 3:378.return to text
  68. Herndon to Weik, Chicago, Jan. 2, 1887, in Hertz, Hidden Lincoln, 152.return to text
  69. Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 1:xiii. return to text
  70. Hay to Howells, Washington, Jan. 22, 1890, Monteiro and Murphy, John-Hay-Howells Letters, 96. return to text
  71. Paul Angle's one-volume abridgment, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1966, does not use this criterion for selection.return to text
  72. Nicolay and Hay, Lincoln, 4:68–69.return to text
  73. Ibid., 1:153–56. return to text
  74. Ibid., 3:345–47, 372–74. return to text
  75. Ibid., 3:375–79. return to text
  76. Ibid., 4:105–8. return to text
  77. Ibid., 4:130–32. return to text
  78. Ibid., 4:140–43, 148–53. return to text
  79. Ibid., 4:352–55. return to text
  80. Ibid., 5:148–51, 6:19–29, 145–46.return to text
  81. Ibid., 6:90–130. return to text
  82. Ibid., 5:130–47, 6:253–72. return to text
  83. Ibid., 10:351–56. return to text
  84. Ibid., 6:13n.return to text
  85. Ibid., 4:79. The source for these words is not cited in the notes. They do not appear in Hay's diary or Nicolay's memoranda of conversations.return to text
  86. Hay to Nicolay, Warsaw, Ill., Nov. 22, 1872, HPBU.return to text
  87. "In the afternoon John G[.] Nicolay, formerly Mr[.] Lincoln's private Secretary, called at my room and had about two hours conversation with me in regard to Mr[.] Lincoln, making memorandums as we talked." Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, eds., The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, 2 vols. (Collections of the Illinois State Historical Library, vols. 20 and 22; Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1925, 1933), 2:415 (entry for June 17, 1875).return to text
  88. Lincoln wrote to Justice David Davis of the Supreme Court: "I wished particularly to say a word for our good friend Mr. Nicolay. I sincerely trust you can find it possible to aid him. You as well as nearly all the justices knew him when he was here with my father, & I think no one could question his great personal fitness for the place. In so far as my poor word could assist him, I give it with the earnest hope he may succeed" (Lincoln to Davis, Washington, Nov. 28, 1872, David Davis Papers, Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield). return to text
  89. Hay to Buel, Newbury, N.H., Sept. 14, 1895, HPBU.return to text
  90. Hay to Gilder, Cleveland, Aug. 13, 1885, Lincoln File, Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. return to text
  91. Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Notes and Anecdotes of Many Years (New York: Scribner's, 1925), 5. return to text