Saving Lincoln's Legacy

How Lincoln's presidential secretaries got the last word.

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Book cover of Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image.

Abraham Lincoln enjoys a reputation as one of history’s most admired presidents, but the esteem wasn’t always so. In fact, Lincoln may owe a great deal of his historical legacy to two 20-something staffers, John Hay and John Nicolay, who served as his personal secretaries and penned his official biography in the late 19th century. In “Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image,” historian Joshua Zeitz explains how Hay and Nicolay became two of the first staffers to formally manage historical perceptions of a president. Zeitz, a former senior policy adviser to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, recently spoke with U.S. News about the making of presidential legacies then and now. Excerpts:

Who were Hay and Nicolay?

They served as his presidential secretaries, which at the time was a role that would be akin in present-day vernacular to a combination of chief of staff, press secretary, body man – it was pretty much all of those things wrapped up in one. They were essentially the gatekeepers to the president. They were present for all of his meetings. They handled his access and they also handled a lot of his politics, and they became extremely trusted aides.

How did they come to be so important to Lincoln?

They very quickly proved deft operators. At first, a lot of people thought that they were wildly inexperienced for the role. They came from Illinois. They had never had any time in Washington. People who held this job tended to be very experienced at national politics. They quickly learned the city, came to be known and to know all of Congress, the military hierarchy. They had a great facility for understanding who Lincoln should be seeing and talking to. They just were very talented young guys who happened into these roles and grew with them very quickly. And it was sort of fitting because Lincoln was an improbable president, and they were equally improbable presidential aides.

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How did they shape Lincoln’s image?

Lincoln was enormously popular with huge swaths of the northern electorate, particularly Union soldiers and their families. And there was obviously an enormous outpouring of grief after he died. By the 1870s and into the 1880s, the consensus among the country’s opinion-makers was that he had been a very weak, if not failed, wartime president. Hay and Nicolay were determined to fight back against that current. They were also really disturbed by the revisionism about the [Civil] War that had begun to take hold by the 1870s and 1880s – that states’ rights had been the cause but not slavery, which they strongly disagreed with. Many, many writers, many biographers, many scholars, many journalists had asked the Lincoln family for access to Lincoln’s papers. [Lincoln’s son] Robert held them all at bay, and he ultimately sat down with Hay and Nicolay and determined that they would write the official biography. Hay and Nicolay would have the last word. So they were the only people who were ever able to consult any of the primary sources about Lincoln’s presidency or even his public career in the 1850s. It was a very deliberate move on both of their parts to make sure that the Hay and Nicolay version of history ended up being the one that would last well into the 20th century.

Did they hide or distort anything?

They certainly didn’t write about things that biographers today would. For instance, they clashed very, very freely and often with [former first lady] Mary Todd Lincoln. They were well aware that she had gone deeply into debt. But they didn’t write about that, and they didn’t write about her because you didn’t do that in the 1870s or 1880s. I think that it was less about the omission and rather about the bent that they gave to things. Their narrative was essentially that Lincoln was a masterful politician and military leader, and everything else got written around that.

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What would surprise readers?

We tend to assume that Abraham Lincoln was always the Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial – this grand, towering, almost godlike figure. He was a very controversial president while he served. He inspired a great deal of admiration and a great deal of distrust and hate. And he very much needed this proactive intercession on the part of his friends in order to make sure that his legacy was secure.

What could President Obama or his advisers learn from “Lincoln’s Boys”?

Someone’s approval ratings and the day-by-day, blow-by-blow political analysis  [we have today] rarely has any translation to the long-term reputation of a president. It’s a longer play, and I think the president knows that. When you build an infrastructure, choose the right people to write the story first, give them a certain authority, and give them a certain exclusivity in terms of access, you’re able to shape that narrative for a long time. That doesn’t mean that it won’t undergo revision, but the first people out of the gate tend to set the terms of the larger discussion.